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Objections May Scuttle NBC's Plan to Accept Hard-Liquor Ads

Two months ago, NBC became the first broadcast network to accept commercials for hard liquor like vodka, rum or whiskey. But an outcry from members of Congress and advocacy organizations opposed to expanding ads for distilled spirits may scuttle the effort.

The complaints could lead to Congressional hearings aimed at producing a bill banning broadcast spots for hard liquor, but it may not stop there. The opponents lined up against NBC may seek to roll back a decision in 1996 by the trade organization for liquor marketers, the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, to lift a voluntary ban against such commercials.

The council's about-face enabled makers of hard liquor to join marketers of beer, wine, malt-based coolers and other alcoholic beverages in using television to sell their wares. Since then, liquor spots have run tens of thousands of times on hundreds of local TV stations and cable systems, as well as on national cable networks. But none had appeared on broadcast TV networks until Dec. 15, when a spot promoting designated drivers on behalf of the Smirnoff vodka brand sold by Guinness UDV ran on "Saturday Night Live" on NBC.

One factor that may determine whether other liquor companies follow Guinness onto broadcast network TV is a timetable set by NBC. Before NBC accepts commercials that sell specific brands, the liquor sponsor must run four months of spots centered on social responsibility issues like drinking moderately. That's why the Guinness UDV spot appearing on NBC since Dec. 15 mentions Smirnoff only in passing and promotes designating a driver before going out to drink.

When the four months are over, and NBC starts running the product spots, the opponents may pounce.

The jump to broadcast television is opposed by people who are upset at what they say is the widening exposure of liquor commercials to children, and they were galvanized into action. They include some members of both parties in the House of Representatives and federal regulators, the incoming chairman of the American Medical Association and the heads of advocacy groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"We anticipated that something bad was going to happen soon," said George Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project at the science center in Washington. As NBC becomes "the subject of mounting public criticism and pressure, the potential for hearings is good," he said.

Reflecting the extent of the anger, the popular culture began weighing in, too. The comic strip "Doonesbury" showed a child watching an episode of the NBC sitcom "Frasier" sponsored by Wild Turkey bourbon. An editorial cartoonist, Mike Thompson, suggested that NBC was "hittin' the hard stuff" to defray the cost of the new contract for the "Today" host Katie Couric.

On "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," a show on which NBC has run the Smirnoff commercial, Jay Leno even bit the hands that feed him, asserting that the network's initials would now stand for "Nothing But Cocktails."

The complaints seem to have encouraged the other national broadcasters - ABC, CBS and Fox - to keep intact, at least for now, their policies against accepting pitches for hard liquor. At the same time, no other liquor company has followed Guinness UDV onto NBC, though network executives say they are in discussions with other companies.

The complaints appear to have convinced NBC and Guinness UDV - a division of Diageo that also sells Johnnie Walker Scotch whiskey and Captain Morgan rum - to restrict the initial commercial's appearance. The spot, created by two agencies, the Glover Park Group and Westhill Partners, has run only after 11:30 p.m. - though under guidelines for liquor ads NBC adopted last month it could also appear from 9 to 11 p.m.

"We've taken a measured and steady approach to increasing our presence on television," said Ted Hissey, senior vice president for marketing at Guinness UDV in Stamford, Conn. "We want to do this in the right way, a responsible way, with pretty strict guidelines."

The NBC executives responsible for formulating the guidelines - 19 points meant to limit the exposure to and appeal of liquor commercials to children and teenagers - are even signaling they may be amenable to tightening the rules in response to the complaints of critics.

"We recognized there would not be universal agreement," said Randy Falco, president at the NBC Television Network division of NBC in New York, part of the General Electric Company. "The goal is to put together a win-win situation."

"We're not pretending we have all the answers," he added. "The standards are a living, breathing document. If something is out of context, we change it."

In another sign that NBC is proceeding cautiously, Alan Wurtzel, president for research at the network, said that it would take the content of even late-night shows into account when considering whether to run liquor commercials.

For instance, Mr. Wurtzel said, if an episode of "Saturday Night Live" is to have a host like the singer Britney Spears "we wouldn't approve the spot in that show" because presumably the viewers would be younger than usual.

Nor will NBC run the Guinness UDV commercial during any coverage of the Winter Olympics, he added, even after 11:30 p.m., because the sports content may appeal to younger viewers. (Because the Olympics so dominates NBC's schedule this month, the commercial is on hiatus for now.)

Whether the limits will be sufficient to assuage the opponents is another matter.

The fight against the commercials "is going to take time, no question about it," said Joseph A. Califano Jr., president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in New York and a former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Jimmy Carter. "But this is a battle people will not shirk from.

"Self-regulation isn't working," he added. "We need legislation or rules from the Federal Communications Commission."

The F.C.C., however, seems unlikely to intervene as only one commissioner, Michael J. Copps, came out against NBC's decision, castigating it as "a race to the bottom."

The prospects for legislation are clouded by the coincidence that the House committee that oversees commerce, which has jurisdiction in this matter, also oversees energy - meaning its members are in the thick of the investigations of the Enron Corporation.

The chairman of the committee, Representative Billy Tauzin, a Republican from Louisiana, thinks there is "a constitutional right to run the ads," said his spokesman, Ken Johnson, "but make no mistake, if the industry pushes the envelope, we won't be afraid to put our foot down."

The industry, needless to say, sees no need for federal intervention.

"We have had a very small amount of Congressional interest," said Peter H. Cressy, president and chief executive at the Distilled Spirits Council in Washington. "It is important for us to be on television, to be recognized as part of a healthy, normal lifestyle for those who choose to drink."

"Not to go on seemed appropriate when there was one television set in the house and the family gathered around it," he added. "But the longer we were off the air, the more we `denormalized' our product, making ourselves look different" from other alcoholic beverages on TV.

There are estimates that if all four national broadcasters accepted liquor commercials, they could become an advertising category with annual spending of $300 million. That is small compared with the networks' total estimated annual revenue of $12 billion to $14 billion, but more than a drop in the bucket during the toughest ad market in decades.

A desire to increase revenue in a soft economy is clearly contributing to the arrival of liquor on broadcast TV, said David Verklin, chief executive at the Carat North America division of Carat in New York, part of the Aegis Group.

But the "creeping toward the center to get liquor on mainstream television" is also "an inexorable part of the trend to loosen what can and can't appear on TV," he added. His agency - recently named to buy advertising for the American division of Pernod Ricard for brands like Seagram's Gin - is considering whether the benefits of advertising on broadcast television would outweigh the costs both financially and in possible negative publicity.

"This is not the right thing to do for children," said Dr. J. Edward Hill, the incoming chairman of the American Medical Association in Chicago. "We've blamed everybody for alcohol abuse, everyone but the alcohol industry."


Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. February 12, 2002

Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.