This week’s big ratings stunt belongs to ABC, which is airing the premiere of ”Gideon’s Crossing” commercial free on Tuesday night (10 p.m.). With ”The Geena Davis Show” debuting beforehand (9:30 p.m.) to mediocre reviews, and the net’s two other new series – ”The Trouble With Normal” and ”Madigan Men” – opening with a disappointing 6.7 and 8.6 million viewers respectively last Friday night, the network’s only hope for a fall hit is ”Gideon,” starring Emmy winner Andre Braugher as the head of a Boston teaching hospital (the show switches to its regular Wednesday night time slot opposite NBC’s ”Law & Order” next week).
After producers initially turned in a 65 minute first episode, ABC had two choices: slash ”Gideon” down to the standard 42 minute format or find a sponsor to underwrite the episode without commercials. Over dinner last month, ABC president Alex Wallau convinced Johnson & Johnson exec Andrea Alstrup to underwrite the longer show. ”It wasn’t a matter of arm twisting,” says Alstrup, J&J’s corporate VP of advertising. ”They were struggling to cut the pilot down, and I realized what a perfect fit the show is since our products are used all over hospitals.”
Not that the Band Aid giant isn’t getting its own dose of good press from the deal. According to the New York Times, Johnson paid about ”seven figures less” than the $2.4 million it usually costs to air 18 minutes of commercials on a new drama. And in return, ABC touted the company all over the media, including a national press conference, commercial teasers, and print ads. J&J is also airing two 60 second spots for its products, one before and one after the show.
ABC’s decision to debut ”Gideon” without ads is a strong show of support for the new program. After all, when’s the last time a major network shrugged off a million dollars in ad revenue in the name of artistic integrity? (The only other recent commercial free ”events” were ”Schindler’s List,” which the Ford Motor Company sponsored for NBC in 1997, and a ”very special episode” of ”Mad About You” later that year.) And sure enough, TV analysts say the prognosis for ”Gideon” is much healthier than for ABC’s other offerings. ”It’s obviously their best chance at a potential hit,” says Bill Sellers, VP of Interactive Media. ”From what I’ve seen, ‘Gideon’ is their one above average new show.”
But even if Braugher doesn’t become ABC’s antidote to Anthony Edwards and ”ER,” ABC should still prosper. Thanks to ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”’s 1-2-3 rank in the Nielsens, the network finished No. 1 last season with an average of 14.3 million viewers, a considerable lead over CBS’s 12.4 million. (Plus, ABC had five other top 20 series, including ”The Practice” and ”Dharma & Greg.”) And this fall the network has added a fourth night (Wednesday) of the game show savior instead of producing two half hour comedies. ”It makes perfect sense to me, because ‘Millionaire’ is the strength of the ABC schedule,” says Paul Schulman, president of the ad buying firm Schulman/Advanswers NY. ”All they’re doing is taking advantage of a phenomenon. When ‘Millionaire’ tires, it will tire whether it’s on for three hours or four.” And if that ever happens, there won’t be a Band Aid big enough anywhere to soothe the network’s wound.