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Does TV need a nip?

If the Distilled Sprits Council of the United States has its way, the hard-liquor TV- advertising category will soar to $300 million a year over the next few years, compared with about $25 million today.

And the council, known as DISCUS, is practically begging broadcasters to take its members' money. The reason? The distillers believe that, if their brands are going to continue to be viable, they need to use TV just like hundreds of other mass-market brands do.

"In a modern era where television is the key form of communication, we think it's important for our products to be on television," says Peter Cressy, president and chief executive officer of the Distilled Spirits Council. "McDonald's didn't become a household word by advertising in the newspapers."

The council has embarked on an aggressive campaign to persuade broadcasters to be receptive to hard-liquor advertising. Cressy and his staff are meeting with station and network executives, rep firms, and trade associations in an effort to win converts.

Christopher Rohrs, president of the Television Bureau of Advertising, met with Cressy in May. "It struck me as a thoughtful, reasonable approach," said Rohrs of the DISCUS presentation. He noted the Council's outreach programs for responsible drinking on college campuses and its work with groups including Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

In a follow-up letter to the TVB membership, Rohrs said, "I'll leave the value and philosophical judgments to you and simply note the new revenue opportunity in this category."

Until 1996, hard-liquor marketers agreed not to air ads on TV—a self-imposed ban that had been in place since 1948. But, says Cressy, times have changed: "Society has matured, and spirits are part of the American fabric."

Since 1996, DISCUS says, about 200 local TV stations, 2,000 radio stations and 200 cable systems have accepted ads for distilled spirits. And other broadcasters that continue to ban such ads say they're reviewing those policies. Belo, for example, has not taken and currently does not take hard-liquor advertising. But, says Jack Sander, president of Belo's broadcasting division, "we have reviewed it a few times in the last two years and will continue to do so."

When asked if the soft ad economy is forcing stations with bans in place to consider accepting liquor ads, Sander replies, "My guess is yes, but it is only a guess. I think it's a complicated issue since cable and radio have been taking it."

And for the first time, a network-owned TV station, NBC's WJAR-TV Providence, R.I., has agreed to run an ad for Baileys Irish Cream, a distilled-spirit Irish whiskey product.

Meanwhile, all the networks continue to have blanket bans on liquor advertising. All but NBC say their owned stations won't carry them either. NBC now lets stations make the decision, based on community standards.

Last week, Cressy gave a presentation to the Texas Association of Broadcasters in San Antonio. In April, DISCUS took a booth at the National Association of Broadcasters Convention in Las Vegas and plans to have one next year at the TVB exhibit at NAB.

Will networks ever accept liquor ads? Cressy says it's a "natural progression of things" to think so. But others say don't hold your breath. The FCC and Congress have signaled their displeasure at growing TV liquor commercials, sources note. With issues like the ownership cap, the NASA filing and various digital-access issues looming, the last thing the networks want to do is give regulators ammunition to suggest they lack self-restraint.