Vowing to air "Roe vs. Wade" Monday without commercials if necessary, NBC President Robert C. Wright urged advertisers Wednesday to support the controversial movie about the landmark case that legalized abortion, calling it balanced, thoughtful and "deserving of advertiser support."
His unusual public action also hit head-on at what he called a trend by "pressure groups" that threaten boycotts of those companies that advertise in shows "of which these groups disapprove."
"You should be as concerned as we are about this trend," he told advertisers.
At least 10 sponsors reportedly have dropped out of the two-hour TV movie about the Texas woman whose bid to end her unwanted pregnancy led to the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion and sparked an ongoing national debate that has finally taken the issue back to the Supreme Court, where the Bush Administration has joined in efforts to overturn the law.
Prior to Wright's strongly worded statement, NBC officials, conceding that some sponsors had dropped out, nonetheless said the film would be fully sponsored. NBC's Monday night movies usually have 28 slots for 30-second ads.
"There are sponsors in it," a spokesman reiterated Wednesday. But when asked if it will be fully sponsored, he replied, "I don't know."
The spokesman declined to say if some of the commercial time will be sold at discount rates, although that appeared a likely prospect.
The movie, which NBC says presents both sides of the abortion issue in a historical account of the famous case, stars Oscar nominees Holly Hunter, as the woman who brought suit, and Amy Madigan, as her attorney.
Wright didn't identify groups protesting "Roe vs. Wade," but it was clear he referred to several anti-abortion organizations that have called the film unbalanced and pro-abortion, charges that NBC has denied.
Dan Donehey of the Washington-based National Right to Life Committee blasted "Roe vs. Wade" this week as "prime-time, pro-abortion propaganda."
Donehey said NBC's plan to broadcast the film "is an intolerable action by a network that will have negative economic ramifications on advertisers on NBC stations."
In his letter to advertisers, Wright said that he wasn't writing "simply to sell commercial time. We will underwrite this project without support if necessary. We're very proud of 'Roe Vs. Wade.' "
NBC, he added, "believes the decision about where your (commercial messages) appear rests with you and your marketing people, not with those who have a predisposition to judge a program's merits based on their own agenda and no information."
He urged them to look at copies of the show NBC is circulating, adding: "It has our support, but it also needs yours."
"Roe vs. Wade" will be followed at 11:35 p.m. Monday by a 55-minute news special featuring a discussion of the abortion issue. Anchored by Tom Brokaw, the program is similar to a half-hour follow-up program he anchored in 1985 after NBC's drama about AIDS, "An Early Frost."
Lloyd Seigel, executive producer of both the abortion and the AIDS specials, said that the program Monday wasn't ordered by NBC's corporate executives as an effort to defuse anti-abortion complaints about "Roe vs. Wade."
"The purpose of it," he said, "is to present the questions in the abortion issue since Roe vs. Wade. It's an effort to bring that case into the present."
Among those participating in the follow-up discussion, NBC said, will be a Planned Parenthood official; Olivia Gans, director of American Victims of Abortion; and Missouri's attorney general, William Webster, who last month argued before the Supreme Court his state's challenge to the 1973 abortion law.
Wright's letter was the latest in an indirect war of letters to advertisers from NBC and a fundamentalist minister well-known from his previous campaigns against what he considers objectionable programs, the Rev. Donald Wildmon, executive director of the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Assn.
Wildmon, whose organization opposes abortion, expressed hope in an April 21 letter to TV advertisers that they "will not reward NBC's pro-abortion stance with advertising support for this movie."
In a telephone interview from Tupelo, Wildmon declined to say how many advertisers he had contacted, or which ones. He acknowledged not having seen the film and said he got his information about it from a "pro-life" group that had been told by someone in the TV industry that the show "is pro-abortion."
Last week, advertisers and ad agencies got a letter from NBC Television Network President Pier Mapes, emphasizing that "pro-choice and pro-life feelings are expressed in 'Roe vs. Wade.' They balance each other, and NBC believes that equal weight in viewpoint is maintained."
He said NBC had sent copies of the movie to ad agencies and sponsors, and urged them to view the program "and decide for yourself."
The "Roe vs. Wade" broadcast comes 16 years and seven months after the first major controversy over abortion was the subject for a TV entertainment program.
The object of the uproar then was a two-part "Maude" episode in which the title character, a bellicose, middle-aged married woman played by Bea Arthur, found herself pregnant and decided to have an abortion.
Opponents of the shows, who demonstrated at CBS headquarters here, said the programs favored abortion. CBS said the shows were balanced. The anti-abortion groups complained to the Federal Communications Commission, saying that CBS had violated the FCC's Fairness Doctrine (which since has been abolished). The FCC denied the complaint. But the protests continued.
The two programs did go on, each sponsored and each averaging a hefty 41% share of the prime-time television audience.
In August, 1973, however, eight months after the U.S. Supreme Court decision depicted in Monday's NBC movie, the sponsorship story was different. Advertisers, frightened by the controversy that had erupted the first time out, shunned reruns of the two "Maude" abortion episodes. According to CBS, the reruns aired unsponsored.
And 21 CBS affiliates balked at airing the reruns, compared to only two, each in Illinois, that refused to air the shows the first time.
No NBC affiliates have said they won't air "Roe vs. Wade," a network spokesman said.