For the second time in less than a month, the major television networks scrambled their advertising schedules moving, postponing and canceling commercials to cover breaking news. The maneuvering included lengthening programs, shifting a show from one network to another and calling agency executives at home to buy commercial time on short notice.
"We've been in a protracted period of instability," said Joe Mandese, editor of Media Buyer's Daily, a newsletter published by Brill Media Holdings in New York. "Budgets are being released, and requests are being made to pull advertising, at the last possible minute."
The disruptions on Sunday resulted from the extensive coverage of the initial strikes against Afghanistan by the United States and Britain. While those changes in ad plans were not as widespread as in the days after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, when continuous news coverage extended for almost a week, significant reshuffling was still required.
"There's a lot of uncertainty," said Paul T. Sweeney, an analyst who follows stocks of American broadcasting companies for Credit Suisse First Boston in New York. "The networks are working with advertisers to gauge the level of spending they're comfortable with."
"The advertisers are coming back" after their commercials go unseen because of pre-emptions for news coverage, he added, "but the question is, to what degree?" Credit Suisse First Boston is part of the Credit Suisse Group.
"Every night is now subject to change because of breaking news," said Marc Berman, media analyst for the Mediaweek.com unit of VNU USA who writes The Programming Insider, a daily e-mail newsletter.
CBS, owned by Viacom, was most affected by the disruptions on Sunday because of a decision by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences to put off the 53rd annual Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony, which CBS was to have broadcast from 8 to 11 p.m. (Eastern time).
The Emmy show had already been postponed once, from Sept. 16, by the terrorist attacks; the academy is expected to determine this week whether to reschedule or cancel the ceremony. The second disappearance of the Emmys forced CBS to fill the three hours by extending "60 Minutes" an hour and presenting rerun episodes of three series, "Everybody Loves Raymond," "King of Queens" and "C.S.I."
"There are contingency plans in place for something like this," said Dana McClintock, a spokesman for CBS in New York.
As for the Emmys, "we moved it once," he added, "so hopefully the advertisers would swing again" if the academy decides to present the ceremony at a later date rather than canceling it.
One Emmy advertiser, the Pontiac-GMC division of the General Motors Corporation, has decided against waiting. A new campaign for the Pontiac line of vehicles, carrying the theme "Pontiac excitement. Pass it on," was to have been introduced during the show on Sept. 16. When the ceremony was postponed, the campaign's introduction was pushed back to the new date, Sunday, with additional commercials to run the rest of this week.
But now, said Dayna Hart, a spokeswoman at GMC-Pontiac in Detroit, the division will forgo the formal introduction of the campaign created by the Troy, Mich., office of D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, part of the Bcom3 Group and begin running the spots during regular programs like "Monday Night Football" on ABC and "Survivor: Africa" on CBS.
"The Emmys were chosen because of the huge viewership," Ms. Hart said, adding that "it's not critical we wait" for another Emmy show, "because the other programs like `Survivor' also have large viewerships."
In extending "60 Minutes," the news magazine show, CBS was joined by NBC, which extended the early Sunday evening edition of "Dateline," its news magazine show, by an additional hour. ABC pre- empted a film, "Doctor Dolittle," that was part of its "Wonderful World of Disney" series to run a two- hour ABC News special report.
Because all three shows were presented as news programs rather than coverage of breaking news that interrupted regular programming, they all included commercials; commercials during the prime-time evening hours are the most expensive sold by the networks. Breaking news coverage, also known as sustaining coverage, typically runs without commercials.
NBC, part of General Electric, ran its planned commercial load from 7 to 11 p.m. (Eastern time) when programming comprised the two-hour "Dateline," which pre-empted the game show "The Weakest Link," plus regular episodes of two series, "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" and "UC: Undercover." In the afternoon, as the first word of the strikes against Afghanistan came in, NBC offered sustaining coverage by moving a Nascar Winston Cup race to TNT, a cable network owned by AOL Time Warner that shares the Nascar contract with NBC.
NBC recently surveyed viewers to see if they thought commercials ought to be part of news coverage. While 35 percent of respondents said spots during breaking news were appropriate, the figure rose to 71 percent when they were asked if spots were acceptable during "NBC Nightly News," to 82 percent for "Dateline" and to 87 percent for "Today."
"The audience is able to make the distinction," said Alan Wurtzel, president for research and media development at NBC.
"I'm not saying people love commercials more than they did on Sept. 10," he added, "but they want to get back to normal life."
At ABC, the commercials that had been set to run during "Doctor Dolittle" were shelved and calls were made on Sunday afternoon, as sustained coverage of the strikes proceeded, to see if advertisers and agencies would be interested in buying time during the special report.
"We didn't think it was appropriate to fold in the advertisers from `Doctor Dolittle' into news coverage" because of the differences in content, said Mike Shaw, president for sales and marketing at the ABC Television Network in New York, part of the ABC division of the Walt Disney Company (news/quote).
Nine advertisers agreed to the last-minute requests, including Alberto-Culver, DreamWorks and Pfizer. After the special report, ABC ran regular episodes of two series, "Alias" and "The Practice," that included commercials.
The Fox Broadcasting division of the News Corporation altered its schedule the least. Fox offered sustained coverage of the strikes from 12:40 to 1:10 p.m. (Eastern time), then presented two football games as obligated under its contract with the National Football League. (CBS had sustained coverage until 4 p.m., then covered the N.F.L. game it was contractually obliged to carry.)
Fox did, however, lose four local and national commercial breaks in pregame and prekickoff programs, said Lou D'Ermilio, a spokesman for Fox Sports in New York, and "we extended the halftime breaks during the games to include Fox News Channel reports."
The network most affected was CNN, part of AOL Time Warner, which ran sustaining coverage for five or six hours, said Robert Romano, a spokesman.
"We've already made up most of the commercial time" as of yesterday afternoon, he added, "or will do so this week."
"It's as the news dictates," Mr. Romano said. "As necessary, we will return to uninterrupted coverage."
By STUART ELLIOTT, The New York Times October 9, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.