Published on Wednesday, December 6, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
Network Pulls Movie After Advertiser Protests
Production about Excedrin-tampering deaths canceled after complaints by Johnson & Johnson
by Claudia Eller and Sallie Hofmeister
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.
The 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.
John McKeegan, a spokesman for Johnson & Johnson, confirmed Tuesday that the company complained about the movie, but denied that it threatened to pull advertising.
"We were advised of the program and didn't feel it was appropriate," McKeegan said. "And we communicated that to the network."
USA officials said the project was pulled after Johnson & Johnson argued that the movie was irresponsible.
"USA 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 spokesman.
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.
The 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 network.
"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 spokesman Sato.
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 programming.
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."
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times