‘Roe vs. Wade’ Courts Smaller Audience but Still Wins Ratings

Times Staff Writer

Despite criticism from anti-abortion groups, NBC’s “Roe vs. Wade” was fully sponsored and easily won Monday’s ratings--but with a smaller audience than the network had projected, ratings figures showed Tuesday.

To NBC’s surprise, the majority of viewer calls to NBC here and in Burbank during Monday’s broadcast favored the two-hour program, with a total of 394 approving it and 77 protesting it, a network spokesman said.

“People are much more apt to complain, so that is a surprise,” said the spokesman, Curt Block. KNBC-TV Channel 4 in Burbank received 177 favorable calls, with 42 protesting the movie’s showing, he said.

In San Diego, KNSD-TV Channel 39 got nearly 50 calls and a majority favored the broadcast, assignment editor Paul Levikow said. The station received more calls when it interrupted the movie “Top Gun” with a commercial last week, he said.

Nevertheless, NBC’s film about a Texas woman’s court fight that led to the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion “will lose money,” Block said. He had no immediate estimate on how much NBC would lose.


“Roe vs. Wade” averaged a 17 rating and attracted 27% of the available audience, meaning it was seen in about 15.4 million homes.

Its network competition--four sitcoms on CBS and an episode of “B. L. Stryker” on ABC--ended in a virtual tie--about a 12.2 rating for each. Each ratings point represents 904,000 homes.

NBC’s ratings for its two-hour movie were below the 19.5 rating and 31% share of audience that the network had projected. That will result, one source estimated, in about a $1-million loss for NBC, either because of reduced rates that NBC had to offer some sponsors of the show or because of “make-goods"--free time on other shows that NBC will have to give certain “Roe vs. Wade” advertisers.

In an interview last Friday, NBC president Robert C. Wright, who earlier vowed to air the show unsponsored if necessary, said the network could lose $1 million or more on the broadcast. Anti-abortion groups had called the film pro-abortion and urged advertisers not to buy commercial time.

Despite warnings of boycotts by such groups, all 28 of the 30-second commercials that NBC was offering in Monday’s broadcast were purchased, the network said.

But the network had to reduce its rates late last week to bring in replacement sponsors for those who had dropped out. NBC declined to say how much the discount was. One advertising source said the average rate of $100,000 for a 30-second slot had been cut by NBC to $60,000 or $50,000 for the late arrivals.

Sponsors of Monday’s show included the Alamo car rental company, Airwick, English Leather men’s cologne, Polident, Murphy’s Oil Soap, Suzuki, Lady Speed Stick deodorant, X-14 Tile Cleaner, Vagisil cream and powder, Olympus cameras and Dexatrim and Acutrim diet pills.

There also were four ads for new films--two for “Field of Dreams” and one each for “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and “See No Evil, Hear No Evil.”

The leadoff ad Monday was one for Maxwell House coffee that featured news personality Linda Ellerbee and NBC “Today” show weatherman Willard Scott. Maxwell House also had a second ad at the end of the show.

The company is owned by General Foods, a major TV advertiser that had made clear its determination to stay in “Roe vs. Wade” well before the show aired.

The movie didn’t violate General Foods’ guidelines for sponsorship and thus the company had no reason to pull out, said spokesman Cliff Sessions.

“We found the movie to be a responsible, high-quality dramatization of a landmark legal case, and one that didn’t take sides,” he said in an interview.

But another major sponsor, Procter & Gamble Co., which, like others, bought time last year on NBC’s Monday movie slot before “Roe vs. Wade” was announced and scheduled, dropped out of Monday’s broadcast. The company didn’t withdraw because of fear of boycotts by protest groups, but because of “our corporate programming policy of avoiding anything controversial,” said spokeswoman Kelly Gillespie.

Jon Mandel, a vice president and director at Grey Advertising here, said before Monday’s broadcast that his agency had several clients who made last-minute buys on NBC’s movie in addition to several regular sponsors of NBC’s Monday night movie who stayed in.

He declined to identify them, but quoted one client who sponsored the movie as telling him: “This is only history, for crying out loud. If we can’t put history on television, where are we?”