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Gay characters don't always cost TV ad dollars

Ellen April 9, 1997
Web posted at: 3:02 p.m. EDT (1902 GMT)

From Correspondent Jill Brooke

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Because of an episode of the TV comedy "Ellen" in which its lead character "comes out" as a lesbian, the Rev. Jerry Falwell has urged sponsors to abandon the program. Some are listening, but gay characters don't always mean little advertising.

Some big sponsors are not participating in the landmark episode, set to air April 30. The show will mark the first time a lead character in a television sitcom -- in this case Ellen Morgan, played by Ellen Degeneres -- announces her homosexuality.

The decision from advertisers such as Chrysler not to participate does not come as a surprise to advertising executives.

"Many advertisers can live without 'Ellen' in their marketing schedule since it is only a marginal hit," said ad exec Paul Schulman. "If it was a top 10 show, demand would be greater to be in it and people would look the other way more."

Big ratings can make a big difference. NBC found plenty of sponsors to sign up for episodes featuring a gay romance in "Friends." Advertisers didn't reject Fox's "Melrose Place" or CBS' "Northern Exposure" despite scenes featuring gay characters.

And while some advertisers were skittish about a kiss between the star and Mariel Hemingway in "Roseanne," there were many who embraced the show.

But "Ellen" has not drawn the numbers of viewers those popular programs drew.

The show has, in fact, turned off many viewers like bad breath. Gay and lesbian groups hope the new plot twist will add fresh interest in the program, both among viewers and advertisers.

"The gay and lesbian community is a growing vibrant consumer group and (advertisers) shouldn't ignore that fact," says Alan Klein of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, a media watchdog group.

Meanwhile, ABC doesn't appear to be desperate for advertisers. The network has turned down sponsors for a cruise line catering to the gay community as well as a lobbying group wanting to protest job discrimination against gay men and lesbians. The network explained that it doesn't accept advocacy or political advertising.

In the 1980s, "thirtysomething" lost $1 million in advertising for airing a scene between two men in bed. But judging from the lack of a backlash against shows with gay characters, public acceptance has increased over the years.

"We've had many gay characters in supporting roles," says Schulman. "The thing that would turn 'Ellen' around is better writing."

Ultimately, many believe ABC will fill the air time with conventional ads despite the ground-breaking story line. The question remains whether viewers -- and thus advertisers -- will revisit the show after "Ellen's" big coming out party.

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