The premiere episode of the Dr. Laura Schlessinger syndicated television series, which ran across the country yesterday, clearly suffered from a summer's worth of protests by gay and lesbian activists as well-known advertisers mostly shunned the show.
The protesters, complaining about remarks on gays Dr. Schlessinger made on her popular syndicated radio program, urged mainstream advertisers to steer clear of her foray onto TV. Only a handful of recognizable brand names were spotted among the sponsors of the initial episode of "Dr. Laura," with the packaged-goods and retail giants that dominate daytime television notably absent.
The sole recognizable sponsors were: Brummel & Brown sandwich spread, sold by the Lipton division of Unilever; Scott bathroom tissue, made by Kimberly-Clark; and Summer's Eve, a feminine hygiene product of the C. B. Fleet Company.
The biggest share of the spots came from national marketers that sell videotapes, diet aids and compact discs through toll-free "800" telephone numbers; local vocational schools and lawyers; and units of Viacom, the parent of Paramount Domestic Television, the Paramount Pictures unit that is producing and syndicating the series.
The commercials seen on WCBS- TV, Channel 2 in New York, a Viacom-owned station, were from names like Castalian Music, selling "The Very Best of the Gipsy Kings" and a collection of Shirley Temple films; the Learning Institute for Beauty Sciences; Premier Diet-ZX, which promised weight loss "24 hours a day"; the Invention Submission Corporation; Sanford Rubenstein, a Brooklyn lawyer with a toll- free number ending in "H-U-R-T"; the Wound Care Center; the New York Restaurant School, promoting classes in "pastry arts"; and Ontel Direct, selling the Universal Inkjet Refill Kit, a syringe that is injected into empty printer cartridges.
The demonstration of the syringe produced an image that jarred incongruously with the topic of the first show, "Teens and Drugs: What Is a Parent to Do?"
The WCBS broadcast also included three commercials promoting Jon Corzine, the Democratic candidate for United States Senate in New Jersey. Such political spots are usually placed by local stations throughout their programming and sold by law at the lowest rates they charge.
The paucity of well-known advertisers and the predominance of local sponsors was also evident in markets like St. Louis and Washington. That made the first "Dr. Laura" seem more like late-night local cable fare than a nationally syndicated talk show meant to appear on broadcast network stations during daytime hours.
"This is not the first time a controversial talk show debuted with mainstream advertisers staying out," Joe Mandese, editor of The Myers Report, an industry newsletter, said yesterday after being read a list of the sponsors. "But this is not a good sign at launch."
Mr. Mandese said: "Controversy generates a lot of awareness. And if you can leverage that, the advertising community will follow - not the mainstream, but the `bottom-feeders' looking for efficiencies." He cited examples like the series of the talk-show hosts Jenny Jones, Sally Jessy Raphael and Geraldo Rivera, which were sponsored primarily by second-tier advertisers that market national brands of over-the-counter drugs and remedies.
But none of the advertisers known to capitalize on the reluctance of mainstream marketers to sponsor contentious programming were present in the debut episode of "Dr. Laura." Such advertisers were the initial sponsors of the prime-time drama series "N.Y.P.D. Blue," which, during its first two seasons on ABC, ran spots from marketers like Plus White toothpaste and Wash 'n Curl shampoo after protests from conservative activists led blue-chip advertisers to avoid buying time.
"N.Y.P.D. Blue" was able to parlay high ratings and favorable reviews from well-regarded TV critics into acceptance from the marketers who had bowed to pressure at first and stayed away. Whether "Dr. Laura" can do the same remains to be seen.
"We continue to believe `Dr. Laura' is an advertiser-friendly program offering an attractive demographic for national advertisers," Joel Berman, co-president of Paramount Domestic Television in Los Angeles, said in a statement.
Paramount Domestic Television is "committed to presenting society's moral and ethical issues without creating or contributing to an environment of hurt, hate or intolerance," the statement also said.
That was clearly an effort to defuse the protests by the activists against the show, orchestrated through a Web site, www .stopdrlaura.com. The volunteers who put up the site - veterans of many organizations that seek to promote gay civil rights - persuaded a long list of mainstream advertisers to declare they would not advertise on "Dr. Laura" or would stop advertising on her radio show. Among them: Geico, Motel 6, Priceline.com and Procter & Gamble, the largest packaged-goods marketer.
"They're walking away because they realize hateful programming is bad business," said John Aravosis, a co-founder of the Web site, adding that Paramount and Viacom were "suffering as a result of her own rhetoric."
Mr. Aravosis said he was responsible for the withdrawal from "Dr. Laura" of an advertiser whose commercial ran during the first episode shown in Washington, where he lives. He identified the advertiser as the Bally Total Fitness chain of health clubs.
John Southern, a spokesman for Bally in Chicago, confirmed that the company had "no intention to advertise on this program in the future." He said that the spot ran as part of a "stationwide, nonspecific media buy."
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. September 12, 2000
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