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USA Network Pulls Movie After Advertiser
TV: Production about Excedrin-tampering deaths canceled
after complaints by Johnson & Johnson.
Bowing to recent pressure from a
major pharmaceutical advertiser, USA Network took the highly unusual step
of canceling the production of a television movie about two highly
publicized drug-tampering deaths.
cable network abruptly pulled the plug on "Who Killed Sue Snow?" on
Thanksgiving eve, five days before filming was to begin in Vancouver,
Canada. The movie was based on the 1986 deaths of two Seattle-area
residents who took cyanide-laced Excedrin.
The action by USA, which is controlled
by media mogul Barry Diller, followed objections by Johnson & Johnson,
whose subsidiary manufactures Tylenol. The New Brunswick, N.J.-based
company threatened to pull all advertising at the network and enlist other
pharmaceutical manufacturers to do the same, according to several sources
involved in the project who requested anonymity.
The sources said Johnson & Johnson
wanted to avoid any reminder of seven unsolved Chicago-area deaths in 1982
from cyanide-tainted Extra Strength Tylenol. It is unclear what pressure,
if any, was exerted on USA by Bristol-Myers Squibb, the maker of Excedrin.
A Bristol-Myers spokesman said he could not confirm whether the company
had registered any concerns.
McKeegan, a spokesman for Johnson & Johnson, confirmed Tuesday that
the company complained about the movie, but denied that it threatened to
"We were advised of
the program and didn't feel it was appropriate," McKeegan said. "And we
communicated that to the network."
officials said the project was pulled after Johnson & Johnson argued
that the movie was irresponsible.
Network and its advertisers agreed that it would be in the public's best
interest to stop production of this movie," said Ron Sato, a USA
USA's move, which led to
about 150 actors and crew members losing their jobs, speaks to the growing
clout of major advertisers in tthe competitive television market. Though
corporations often raise concerns about the content of programs they
sponsor, it is virtually unheard of for television executives to respond
by stopping production or pulling a program off the air.
"I can't remember a case where a show
was canceled because of pressure from an advertiser," said Jack Myers,
chief economist for the Myers Reports, a New York-based research firm
specializing in media.
The USA spokesman
said the project was killed due to concerns that a TV movie about
drug-tampering fatalities might lead viewers to engage in similar criminal
conduct. "Even the slightest chance of somebody committing a copycat crime
would be shirking our public responsibility," Sato said.
Hollywood is under attack by Congress
and parents of young children for glorifying violence. Network executives
have responded by claiming there is no connection between violent
programming and criminal activity.
movie was to star Katey Sagal, the wife on Fox's "Married . . . With
Children," as Stella Nickell, who was convicted of lacing the Extra
Strength Excedrin capsules with cyanide that killed her husband, Bruce
Nickell. To make the murder look like the copycat work of a random killer
similar to the 1982 Tylenol poisonings, Nickell laced other Excedrin
bottles and placed them on store shelves in the suburban Seattle town of
Auburn, where she lived.
Sue Snow, 40,
an assistant bank manager and newly remarried mother of two, bought one of
the tainted bottles. On June 11, 1986, Snow swallowed two capsules and
died. Nickell, who is serving a 90-year sentence at the Federal Correction
Institution in Dublin, Calif., was the first person in the country to be
prosecuted and convicted of murder under federal anti-tampering laws.
USA could hardly afford to lose a
valuable advertiser over one movie. Analysts say an expected industry-wide
advertising slowdown has media companies worried about revenue shortfalls.
USA, which has dropped from first to fifth place in prime-time ratings
among cable networks, is particularly vulnerable after losing its most
popular programming from the World Wrestling Federation this fall.
The network's advertising revenue grew
5% in the third quarter, compared with the cable industry average of 10%
to 15%, according to Ed Hatch, an analyst at SG Cowan Securities.
The cable channel is part of USA
Networks Inc., a media company owned by Diller, who has controlling
interest, and Seagram Co., parent of Universal Studios. Diller, questioned
last week at the cable industry's Western Show in Los Angeles, denied that
the movie was dumped because of threats by the drug company to boycott the
"I can't tell you why," Diller,
chairman of USA Networks, told a reporter. He referred questions to USA
Network President Stephen Chao, who declined to comment through USA
Diller said he learned
about the project's demise in an internal e-mail and was disappointed
about the cost of shutting down the $3.5-million production. Diller added
that he was proud of his staff for "making the right decision."
It is unclear who at USA made the
decision. One executive said Rob Sorcher, the network's new general
manager, was responsible. Sorcher could not be reached late Tuesday.
Though it is unknown how much money USA
could have lost from a boycott, drug manufacturers are the nation's
fifth-largest advertisers. The industry spent $2.4 billion in the first
six months of this year on all media, according to Competitive Media
Reporting. Myers said a 30-second spot on a major cable network such as
USA runs about $60,000, and the channel airs eight to 12 minutes of
advertising an hour.
A representative of
Columbia TriStar Television, which was producing the movie for USA, said
the company was "ready to go and did shut down the production at the
request of the network." USA is responsible for paying costs of more than
$1 million. The production was scheduled to begin an 18-day shoot Nov. 27.
Director Jeff Reiner and producer
Richard Heus were informed the day before Thanksgiving by USA movie chief
Adam Shapiro that the production was being scrapped, said sources familiar
with the project. Reiner declined to comment.
"I feel really bad for all the people
who lost their jobs just before the holidays," Heus said. "It's very
unfortunate." He declined to comment further.
The first signs of trouble emerged three
weeks before the cameras were to roll when USA executives shared
advertiser concerns with the production company. It is unknown how the
drug manufacturers learned about the movie. In recent years, with growing
sensitivity toward violence and profanity on television, network
advertising sales departments have routinely allowed sponsors to preview
To appease the advertisers,
the filmmakers agreed to alter the script and use a fictitious drug name,
Adanol, instead of Excedrin, and not name Bristol-Myers Squibb. They also
agreed to change the names of the family members of the two victims and
others associated with the deaths, including the FBI agents who
investigated the crimes.
Ilene Berg, who
is listed as an executive producer on "Who Killed Sue Snow?," had been
developing the project for seven years. Berg declined to comment.
"Historically, back to the days of 'All
in the Family,' 'Laugh-In,' through 'NYPD Blue,' advertisers have exerted
pressure but never interfered with a program going on the air," said
Myers. "Programming departments are sensitive toward advertising but
operate very autonomously from sales."
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