The ailing Dr. Laura
Stations can't sell her talk show. Is gay protest working?
By Susanne Ault -- Broadcasting & Cable, 10/1/2000 8:00:00 PM
Dr. Laura's ongoing problem with gay-rights activists is prompting at least a handful of station executives to pop a few aspirin.
"We had seven or eight advertisers last week alone saying they don't want to advertise on the show. So, does that have an impact? Yes it does," says Mary MacMillan, general manager of WBTV(TV) Charlotte, N. C.
Says KYW-TV Philadelphia spokeswoman Joanne Calabria: "At this point, it's been very difficult to get anyone to advertise on the show. We've even had [nonprofit] PSA people call us and ask 'will you please not put our PSAs on her show?'"
All 10 stations contacted for this story confirmed that some sponsors have pulled out, although CBS-owned KPIX(TV) San Francisco and Scripps' WMAR-TV Baltimore said the Paramount-distributed Dr. Laura was creating no financial hardships.
Ever since the show was announced last year and long before it went on air earlier last month, the show has been the object of protests by gay groups. Claiming that host Laura Schlessinger has made anti-gay comments on her radio talk shows, the groups have been urging advertisers to boycott the show.
"My take is that it's a fairly big deal for most television stations, certainly the ones I've talked to-two of which are very aggrieved," says Garnett Losak, director and vice president of programming at Blair Television. "Some are just more talkative than others."
However, one source says, "the situation is getting talked about within the CBS O & O group. We're looking at our options because it's pretty difficult to sustain a show when no one wants to advertise." At least one option is to convince Paramount to pull the plug on Dr. Laura, letting stations out of their contracts to plug in shows that can attract more ad money.
"We've signed an agreement that keeps the show in early fringe for one solid year," says one general manager. "So in that case, you're at the studio's mercy to work with them and say, 'Gosh, we want to do this, but you're killing us here.'"
Wbtv's MacMillan has been shuffling any anti-Laura advertisers onto shows directly following or preceding her, "which gets really, really tight," she says. "I've got stress both ways-a direct revenue stress [on the station] and a stress on my advertising in my next show."
Not to burst the bubble of StopDrLaura.com-whose gay-rights-focused members scan the show for commercials, pleading with advertisers to yank future spots-but ad-allergic shows are nothing new, and there is an allergy shot for them: ratings. Current talk circus Jerry Springer, Married with Children and even multiple Emmy-winning but violent NYPD Blue all were reportedly once on advertiser "hit-lists" of programs to avoid.
"Springer was tough on us for awhile," recalls Michael McKinnon, owner and general manager of KUSI-TV San Diego, who acknowledges that there has been a "moderate impact" on his station from Dr. Laura.
So, get eyeballs and the ads will follow, one rep advises Dr. Laura.
"If her numbers turn around [the show's starting 9-day average of 1.6, according to Nielsen Media Research, is more than 20% off its averaged lead-in and year-ago time period average], then the content won't be that big of an issue," says Katz TV's Bill Carroll.
Losak adds: "The answer is for Paramount to make a show that people want to watch."
Dr. Laura's production team admits to having taken a few days off to talk November sweeps strategy, but no one close to the show has owned up to performing any major retooling of the strip, which Carroll describes as "a show so tame.it has no entertaining edge for viewers."
But Paramount has hired Linda Ellman (a former Hard Copy co-executive producer) as an adviser, consulting on Dr. Laura, among other projects.
"I think they're very disappointed in the way the show looks," says one source. "I absolutely believe that they are not happy with that show. They are going to make changes of some kind."
To that a Dr. Laura representative reiterates, "As we have said, we believe Dr. Laura will be part of the long-term TV landscape."
For now, Dr. Laura remains in her honeymoon period as a rookie series. Her make-or-break period will hit in October, once the Olympics have ended and all of the new syndicated series have premiered.
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