Those who loved Hollywood’s most celebrated romance, “Gone With the Wind,” had to wait 55 years for its sequel, “Scarlett,” the $45-million CBS miniseries that concluded Thursday.
So with a buildup like that, the network expected viewers to stage a Sherman’s March to get to their TV sets for it.
A lot of women did just that. And for an eight-hour miniseries, it pulled down solid ratings overall, drawing an average of 17.6 million households a night, or 28% of all the homes watching television nationwide.
But in the end, “Scarlett” fell short of expectations.
When CBS sold advertising time for the program in June, the network guaranteed advertisers that a whopping 36% of the viewing audience would want to see Scarlett O’Hara (Joanne Whaley-Kilmer) wooed once more by Rhett Butler (Timothy Dalton).
“Scarlett,” however, fell 22% short of that projection in a business where 10% is considered acceptable. Now, CBS must give back free advertising time--totaling $3 million-$5 million, according to the network--in other prime-time programs to make good on its promise.
“It’s a successful miniseries,” said Paul Schulman of the Paul Schulman Co., a New York agency that buys advertising time for corporations. “It’s just not the blockbuster they anticipated for the amount of time it took to produce it, the amount of money they sunk into it and what they sold advertising for.”
Part of the problem was generally tepid reviews, for which no CBS promotional punch could compensate. “If every review had been favorable and glowing, then it would have done much better,” said Betsy Frank, senior vice president at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising in New York.
But “Scarlett,” for which CBS reportedly paid a $20-million license fee, was probably most limited by its narrow appeal.
“The greatest reason why it didn’t do the numbers of a ‘Lonesome Dove,’ for example, is because it was a female special,” Schulman said. “It didn’t have the dual audience appeal that other miniseries have had, like ‘The Stand’ earlier this year on ABC. This was a special for women.”
David Poltrack, executive vice president of research for CBS, agreed. “There wasn’t enough male appeal that it wasn’t vulnerable to counter-programming,” he said. Some of “Scarlett’s” competition over the week included many programs popular with men, such as “Home Improvement,” “Frasier,” “NYPD Blue” and “ER.” The first hour of “Scarlett’s” big finale Thursday night was beat head-to-head by two episodes of “Seinfeld” on NBC.
“We’re not going to draw the men away from shows like that, whereas a miniseries like ‘The Stand’ will,” Poltrack said. “The Stand,” based on Stephen King’s apocalyptic novel, averaged 19.4 million TV households on ABC over four nights in May.
“Scarlett” reflects an overall trend occurring this fall at CBS, which has been somewhat taken aback by the strength of its competition. When CBS sold time in “Scarlett,” it was still the No. 1-rated network. Now, CBS trails ABC in season-to-date ratings, while NBC is a close third and actually is beating CBS in adults 18 to 49, an age group that commands a premium rate from advertisers.
All season long, CBS prime-time programming has been receiving lower ratings than it guaranteed to advertisers, resulting in numerous make-goods across the board. That’s part of the risk of doing network business, said Poltrack, who added that the network’s performance has been improving and has approached projected levels the last couple weeks.
“With advertiser guarantees, you want to get as close to the rating as you possibly can without going under,” he explained. “You don’t want your program to outperform your guarantee, because then, in effect, you are giving away free inventory. So you try to get as close as you possibly can.”