NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
Walt Disney Co.'s best shot at reviving its sickly ABC network may have plenty of skin and sin, but "Desperate Housewives" has lost a few advertisers as a result.
|'Desperate Housewives' toast their misery in a scene from ABC's surprise hit.
Tyson Foods, Lowe's Cos., and Kellogg have all aired spots on the weekly prime time soap that debuted late last month. And none plan to air any more.
Officials at two of the advertisers -- Arkansas-based Tyson Foods (unchanged at $15.15, Research) and North Carolina-based Lowe's Companies (up $0.05 to $56.45, Research) -- confirmed that the decision against buying more commercial time on "Desperate Housewives" was based on the hit show's cheeky script, which centers on a tony suburban neighborhood where four middle-aged women live in misery and a fifth who committed suicide narrates from the grave.
In all, five companies -- Tyson, Lowe's, Kellogg and frozen meal makers ConAgra Foods and Pinnacle Foods Group -- have come under attack in the last week by the American Family Association, a self-described "traditional family values" group that has over the years been a relentless critic of the entertainment industry.
While acknowledging the early defections, ABC officials insisted that the show has been attracting more advertisers, not fewer.
Through two of its member Web sites, the American Family Association has rallied thousands of followers, who last week began inundating the e-mail servers and phone lines at Tyson, Lowe's and ConAgra.
Within hours, Lowe's and Tyson notified the association that they were pulling out of any future advertising on the show, said Randy Sharp, the special projects editor for the American Family Association and the editor of its OneMillionMoms.com and OneMillionDads.com
|More recent TV coverage
Gary Michaelson, a Tyson spokesman, said the company bought air time on one episode before deciding against purchasing more. "The show is not consistent with our core values, which focus on operating with integrity and trust in all we do," he said.
At Lowe's, the company did not know that Whirlpool, the largest U.S. home appliance maker whose ads feature the Lowe's logo, was a sponsor until an ad appeared on "Desperate Housewives."
Lowe's officials were not pleased.
"Our advertising guidelines are such that Lowe's chooses not to advertise in controversial programming, including programming with gratuitous sex and violence," said Chris Ahearn, Lowe's director of public relations. She said steps have since been taken to avoid a similar breach of company policy in the future.
Calls to ConAgra were not returned. Sharp claimed victory, however, noting that the Omaha, Neb.-maker of Chef Boyardee, Healthy Choice and other packaged foods did not advertise on a recent episode of "Desperate Housewives." Sharp said ConAgra (Research) got about 36,000 e-mails last week from American Family Association members.
This week the association's membership set its sights on breakfast cereal maker Kellogg and Pinnacle Foods, the producer of Swanson frozen foods and Vlasic pickles. A Kellogg spokeswoman confirmed that the company, which aired one ad on "Desperate Housewives," is not planning to buy more commercial time on the show.
A call to Pinnacle Foods was not returned.
More bluff than bluster?
But there's reason to think the campaign against advertisers is much ado about nothing.
Headline-grabbing matchups like this can be a boon to networks because of the additional viewers who tune in just to see what all the fuss is about, said Steve Craig, a professor at the University of North Texas and an expert on controversial programming.
One oft-cited example is "Married...With Children," the parody of family life that ran on Fox from 1987 until 1997. When a Michigan housewife mounted a heavily-publicized boycott of the show, some companies that initially backed off from advertising later returned, lured by a ratings bump that coincided with the dustup.
"I don't think (Fox executives) were all that upset about the publicity," said Craig. And neither, he opined, are ABC officials today.
"Desperate Housewives" is already an overnight smash, ranked among the top prime time shows since its Sept. 26 premiere. The strong ratings are a key reason why television pundits say that ABC, bleeding money and stuck at No. 4 in prime time ratings, may finally be turning itself around.
One key measure: rates for a 30-second spot on the show have doubled, to roughly $300,000, since the initial round of ads were sold in May, two television advertising trade journals reported this week.
ABC officials sounded sanguine in a statement released to CNN/Money that proclaimed "Desperate Housewives" to be the TV season's No. 1 new show. "We are seeing tremendous demand from advertisers for the show," they said.
Sharp, the American Family Association official, acknowledged that the anti-"Desperate Housewives" campaign has so far targeted advertisers that seem susceptible to outside pressure.
"We usually look at the list of advertisers and we go (after) those that are considered family-friendly companies," said Sharp. "These folks know that moms buy their frozen products."
Sharp said he plans to keep the heat on ABC and not just because of "Desperate Housewives." Another ABC program that he says parents are complaining about: "Life As We Know It," a drama about three teenage boys described by ABC as "hormone-charged."
"The show is nothing but sex, sex, sex," said Sharp. "We're really looking hard at it."
The goods news for Sharp is, "Life As We Know It" has struggled in its Thursday night time slot opposite CBS and NBC's strong lineup. The bad news is, a little controversy might be exactly what the show -- and ABC -- is looking for.