Bad news for those hoping that TV controversy will someday become cost-effective.
Sources at NBC said Thursday that the network lost about $500,000 on Wednesday's disputed "Quantum Leap" episode about gays and gay bashing.
Confirming that there was a loss, Sue Binford, NBC vice president for corporate and media relations, said that a number of sponsors pulled out of the episode and that those taking their place were allowed to buy commercial time at a "minimum cost."
The episode aired with only one 30-second spot unsold, Binford said. She added that this unsold commercial time was "given" to Universal Pictures as a "make-good," or repayment for a previous commercial buy that Universal had made on an NBC show whose ratings were less than anticipated.
"Quantum Leap" is produced by Universal Television, a corporate sister of Universal Pictures. However, Binford said that the "make-good" was not made in response to a reported suggestion by the network that the studio help underwrite any advertising loss incurred as a result of airing the episode.
During a squabble with the network over production of the episode last September, "Quantum Leap" executive producer Don Bellisario had asserted that NBC officials raised the possibility of the studio compensating NBC for airing the episode in the event of a sponsor dropout.
NBC had denied making such a suggestion, but even so, there would have been a basis for concern, given the recent history of advertiser withdrawals from controversial programs--including an episode of ABC's "thirtysomething" depicting two gay men in bed and NBC's own movie "Roe vs. Wade," about the Supreme Court's landmark decision legalizing abortion.
"Quantum Leap" protagonist Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) each week zooms backward through time into the body of someone confronting a serious dilemma. Wednesday found him surfacing at a naval college in 1964 and assuming the identity of a cadet faced with saving the life of a friend beaten by student vigilantes because of his homosexuality.
Although NBC and Bellisario had maintained that only minor changes were made in the shooting script that originally was submitted for network approval, Wednesday's version appeared to have been significantly altered from the script that was rejected by NBC's standards and practices department and accused by gay rights activists of being "negative and unbalanced."
In the proposed shooting script, Sam's harassed gay friend was a teen-ager who hanged himself, according to Richard Jennings, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. In Wednesday's version, he was "over 21," a potential martyr talked out of suicide by Sam and the school's track coach--a big bear of a man and a positive gay character whom Jennings says was not in the earlier script that he read.
Jennings had argued then that the character's suicide would send a dangerous message to real-life gay teens.
In another change, moreover, Wednesday's episode left the impression that Sam's character--a 21-year-old track star who jeopardized his own life and future to aid his friend--was almost certainly gay. "That was ambiguous in the the other final script," Jennings said.
Bellisario promised on "Entertainment Tonight" that Wednesday's episode would feature "both sides." As if there were two sides to ignorance and bigotry.
The producer has a habit of making misleading or ambiguous public statements that he apparently hopes will soften the impact of "Quantum Leap" episodes that are controversial, including a recent one that put Sam inside the body of a chimp used for crash research. Despite the episode's advertised "balance," you found yourself pulling for the chimp, not for the callous researchers.
NBC itself acted as if it wanted to sneak this week's highly promotable "Quantum Leap" on the air with minimum fuss. Here was the network's Wednesday night tease preceding the episode: "Sam's life hangs in the balance when he's accused of betraying his country." Color that vague, if not flat-out false.
Just as unclear is what Bellisario meant by "both sides," for his show ridiculed the bigotry of its anti-gay characters. Such anti-gay epithets as queer and the three "F" words-- fruit , fag and fairy --were used against Sam and his friend by their cretinous tormentors. The naval officer heading the school insisted that gays "lack leadership qualities." And the episode introduced TV's first homophobic hologram in the person of Albert (Dean Stockwell), Sam's time-traveling mentor, who repeatedly made stereotype-driven remarks about the body language and other habits of Sam's character.
But Sam aggressively counterattacked. "Get out and don't come back until you've joined the 20th Century!" he snapped at Albert at one point. In the previous version, anti-gay remarks were unrebutted, Jennings said.
"We think the episode is great," he said. From his group's perspective, perhaps.
Unfortunately, the hour was not as well executed as it was well intentioned. The character of the track coach came across as an artificial and awkwardly imposed script convenience. And the telegraphed disclosure of his own homosexuality--along with Albert's unnaturally swift conversion to enlightenment ("I was wrong")--contributed to one of those familiar, pat TV endings in which truth loses out to tidiness.
There was, unfortunately, nothing tidy about the ending to this week's "Quantum Leap" sponsorship story. Obviously, some advertisers didn't get the message that Albert did.