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Some Sponsors Can't Accept Racy Reality Show

For the third consecutive week, young audiences flocked on Wednesday night to the Fox network's racy "Temptation Island," the reality show filled with tight bodies and tense with sexual jealousy and emotional trauma.

But behind the scenes, Fox has been facing an unstaged reality drama of its own. Commercial time for "Temptation Island" has not been selling out or has been selling at bargain rates. Some advertisers have even pulled out.

The reason has mostly to do with skittishness about the show's content. Its premise is to entice long-term couples (unmarried but "committed") into infidelities with a bevy of attractive and highly tempting singles. Three big TV advertisers, Sears, Roebuck, Quaker Oats and Best Buy, whose commercials appeared in the first episode of "Temptation Island," quickly made it clear to Fox, a unit of the News Corporation, that they wanted to vote themselves off this particular island.

Despite gaudy ratings among the young viewers avidly coveted by advertisers, "Temptation Island" has been forced to fill out a portion of its available commercial time with bargain-hunting advertisers like Nutri-Systems, Slim Jim, and David's Bridal Gowns.

Much has been made of the impact that reality shows have had on network television in the past two years, but the advertising performance of "Temptation Island" is a sign that certain inevitable brakes might be applied to the edgiest parts of the trend.

Mainly, the aversion of some of TV's biggest advertisers to "Temptation Island" is reinforcing an Achilles' heel for reality shows: they are a less appealing environment to advertisers than are other forms of programming.

At the very least, the ad weakness of "Temptation Island" demonstrates that the value of reality shows may have to be gauged in ways other than ad revenues, like promotional value for other shows or bragging rights in the ratings wars.

Several ad executives and network sales executives said in interviews that reality shows may start to break down into two categories: those with acceptable family-friendly content, like "Survivor" and ABC's "The Mole," which will receive prices for commercials commensurate with their ratings; and those with unacceptably racy content, like "Temptation Island" and the coming "Chains of Love" on UPN (on which one woman is chained to four men). These shows might never come close to matching advertising dollars with rating points.

The ratings points are certainly not a problem. If the Super Bowl, followed by "Survivor II," had not been broadcast yesterday, "Temptation Island" would have been the No. 1 show in television last week among the audience most desired by advertisers: adults 18 to 49.

But "Temptation Island" drew only a fraction of the ad revenue committed to "Survivor II." The show last week did attract a number of more established advertisers, including no fewer than eight movies; and, with production costs well below those for hour-long filmed dramatic series, "Temptation Island" will easily end up being profitable, Fox executives promise.

But the profit would be enhanced if some advertisers were not finding the program too offensive to touch. Lee Antonio, a spokeswoman for Sears's advertising department, said that Fox had placed what is known as a "make-good" commercial - a free commercial given for a previous audience shortfall in another show - for Sears in the first episode of "Temptation Island." "We weren't happy about it," Ms. Antonio said.

She pointed out that Sears is a member of the family-friendly advertising consortium, a group of big TV advertisers that have banded together to elicit more family-oriented programming from the broadcast networks. "This was definitely not for us," Ms. Antonio said.

Jon Nesvig, the president of Fox Advertising Sales, would not comment on whether additional advertisers had dropped out after the second or third episode.

Advertisers are usually hungry to get at the 18-to-34-year-old viewers who dominate the show's audience. The program is averaging an 11.8 rating in that group, the highest of any series the entire season.

Still, two of the show's 30-second spots were unsold on Wednesday; three were unsold the week before. "It's getting better," Mr. Nesvig said. "We had a pretty full load this week." He said the overall weakness in TV advertising had contributed to the difficulties. "I think we're actually doing pretty good with something like this," he said. "It's obviously not for everybody."

Whom it does seem to be for is any advertiser that focuses on viewers who are teenage to 30 years old - and is willing to ignore issues about content. More than any other group that means movie advertisers.

Last week, "Temptation Island," often resembled a movie house with an especially long trailer, as clips for films like "Valentine," "Snatch," "Sugar and Spice," "Hannibal" and "Saving Silverman" rolled by.

The movie companies always pay healthy prices, one senior network sales executive said. But he suggested that Fox had sold some other commercials to what he called "bottom-feeders" for below-market prices in the series. Mr. Nesvig declined to comment specifically on the prices he was getting, other than to say, "It is an efficient buy."

One advertiser who acknowledges getting a serious bargain is Jordache Jeans, which placed a commercial in the first episode. "They made it really accessible," said Michael Riego, the senior vice president for advertising for Jordache. "We buy audited eyeballs," Mr. Riego said. "We don't care in the least about people pontificating about content."

What is not in dispute is that Fox is not nearly getting the price that a different show, without lightning-rod content issues, would be getting. Indeed, "The Mole," which has only been about half as strong in the ratings, has been charging a higher average price for its commercials, an executive familiar with both shows' price rates said.

A top sales executive at another network, Keith Turner of NBC said, "Reality is definitely a problem. Comedy gets the highest prices, followed by drama. Reality has always been way down there."

That was before "Survivor," of course. But "Survivor" was watched by all age groups, offending almost no one. As a result, CBS, a unit of Viacom as is UPN, had advertisers clamoring to buy into the show. The network may take in more than $100 million in ad revenue on "Survivor II."

The side benefits of a hit are, of course, an additional consideration a network can take into account when assessing a show's value. With "Temptation Island" on its schedule, Fox has challenged or won the weekly ratings competition for young adult viewers. The show has also catapulted Fox past ABC, a unit of Walt Disney, and toward a reasonably serious challenge of NBC, a unit of General Electric, for leadership for the whole season among young adults.

Fox can also play promotions for its other series inside "Temptation Island," exposing other shows to that huge base of young viewers.

Despite the lackluster ad sales, Fox executives are now in discussions on bringing the show back for another round. "I assume there'll be a No. 2," Mr. Nesvig said. "It's been too successful for there not to be."

ABC and NBC have reason to want to minimize Fox's competitive surge by suggesting that it is taking the low road - one far less paved with good commercials. But they are supported by some ad industry executives who also denigrate "Temptation Island."

"I would never put our clients in a show like `Temptation Island,' " said Gene DeWitt, the chairman of Optimedia, a media buying service. "The whole show is founded on a premise that is totally distasteful. The next step is the Roman Colosseum."

Fox dismisses the criticism as a knee-jerk reaction to a provocative premise and says the show's content is within the network's standards. "People are watching the show, and they wouldn't be if they didn't like it," Mr. Nesvig said.

Besides, the network is confident that the ratings will eventually wear down advertiser resistance. "Once a show starts popping numbers like this," said one senior Fox executive, "it suddenly becomes art rather than trash."


Bill Carter, The New York Times. January 29, 2001

Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.