NBC Fears $1-Million Ad Revenue Loss on ‘Roe vs. Wade’

Times Staff Writer

NBC could lose $1 million or more on its controversial movie about the landmark case that legalized abortion, network President Robert C. Wright said Friday, acknowledging that the network had been unable thus far to sell all of the commercial spots in the two-hour film that airs Monday night.

But he said has no regrets about making “Roe vs. Wade.”

“No, none at all,” said Wright, who on Wednesday urged advertisers and ad agencies to stand fast against advocacy groups seeking to dissuade them from buying commercial time in the movie.

Although potential financial loss is an issue, he said Friday, NBC’s main concern “isn’t that we may lose a million dollars or more” in advertising revenue, but rather “that we make sure we try to fight an atmosphere where agencies and advertisers just routinely shy right away from things of this nature. I think that’s the fundamental issue here.”


A number of advertisers, apparently fearing retaliation from groups that have assailed the movie as pro-abortion, have pulled out of the program, which recounts the legal case that led to the U. S. Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling that legalized abortion. NBC won’t say which ones or how many.

Others sponsors, however, have come in to take their place, Wright noted, likening the situation to an “ebb tide . . . there are some going out and some going in.”

But at least some of the ones coming in are doing so at discounted rates, he said.

“It’s unlikely that the show will be fully sponsored at our hoped-for rates,” he said. He declined to say what the regular price is.


The movie has a total of 28 30-second slots for commercials. Wright said he hoped the rest of those slots would be filled by Monday.

“They’re not now,” he said.

Despite advertisers who left “Roe vs. Wade,” Wright said, there remain some “who’ve been extraordinarily supportive.” However, he wryly added, “I hate to even single them out because that may not be precisely what they want.”

NBC has repeatedly said its movie is balanced, and the network denied an assertion by the National Right to Life Committee that the film is “prime-time, pro-abortion propaganda.” Controversy over abortion themes in entertainment programs dates back to CBS’ “Maude” in 1972, and has flared in recent years on such shows as “Cagney & Lacey” and, most recently, a three-part abortion story on “TV 101" that CBS aired earlier this season.

But Wright’s public appeal to advertisers was unusual in that network executives tend to remain low-key about major controversies over their programs, taking their lumps and suffering criticism in silence.

“Believe me, I’ve received a lot of calls from people questioning why I’d do this,” Wright said, referring to his strongly worded statement Wednesday.

His reply to callers, he said, is that “in some respects it isn’t fair to advertisers and agencies to expect them to carry the whole ball on this thing. We have to show some initiative ourselves, and where we see something that in our mind is a mistake, I think it’s up to us to point it out.”

NBC drew sharp criticism last fall for airing a graphic Geraldo Rivera special on satanism. Sources have said it also lost at least $500,000 when advertisers withdrew their support of that program before it aired.


Did the uproar over Rivera’s special create the atmosphere for advertiser defections from Monday’s movie, or is “Roe vs. Wade” a separate issue?

“Well, you certainly can’t separate that,” Wright said. “The fact of the matter is, it (the Rivera special) certainly contributed.” But it isn’t the only factor, he said.

Pressure-group complaints and threats of advertiser boycotts are nothing new, Wright said, noting that NBC had problems with advertiser defections when its acclaimed “An Early Frost,” a drama about AIDS, aired in 1985.

“I think as we go forward, though, that it’s more important for us to be actively encouraging the (advertising) people who support us on a regular basis to at least examine these kinds of shows more carefully,” he said.

“I’m a little concerned that, because there are groups out there that pick up the phone quickly and tend to have these organized ‘post-card campaigns,’ they may have much more influence on agencies and advertisers than I think the facts would warrant.”

The calls and letters NBC routinely gets from viewers, he said, are “more and more not reflecting the so-called special-interest group activity. . . .

“I think the advertisers are unduly influenced in many cases by the weight of the special-interest kind of mail. And it’s our job, in many respects, to try to represent the viewer--or at least represent the viewer’s point of view.”