‘To Catch a Predator’ Is Falling Prey to Advertisers’ Sensibilities
In the last 18 months, NBC’s investigative segment “To Catch a Predator” has received wide attention, rejuvenating ratings for the network’s “Dateline NBC” newsmagazine and making a celebrity of Chris Hansen, the show’s host, who confronts men trolling online chat rooms hoping to meet teenagers for sex.
So why does NBC seem to be scaling back its commitment to “To Catch a Predator”? The network has filmed only one sting operation so far this year, compared with seven in 2006. In several ways, the high ratings for “Predator” have come at a high price for NBC. Some advertisers say they are wary of being associated with the show’s content, in which men lured to a house by the promise of a sexual encounter are instead surprised by Mr. Hansen and then arrested.
Critics have also raised ethics questions about the series because NBC coordinates the investigations with a private watchdog group and local police departments. And two lawsuits are pending against the network, one by a former producer and another by the sister of a man who committed suicide as police officers approached his house, accompanied by NBC camera crews.
But the show’s success underlines a growing problem for television executives looking to push the envelope of good taste in search of hits: how to pursue high ratings without alienating advertisers or provoking negative public opinion. In 2005, similar concerns prompted ABC to cancel a reality show called “Welcome to the Neighborhood,” in which conservative couples selected new neighbors from a pool of diverse contestants.
The criticism and lawsuits directed at “To Catch a Predator” have led to negative news coverage of the show, online and in magazines like Esquire and Rolling Stone. ABC News recently confirmed that its prime-time newsmagazine program “20/20” is preparing a report about “To Catch a Predator.”
An NBC producer denied that the network was trying to distance itself from “Predator.” “We’re really proud of it,” David Corvo, executive producer of “Dateline,” said in a telephone interview. “We’re not running away from it.” Officially, the network said it is “discussing future investigations” and declined to comment further.
Some media buyers were hesitant about buying ads on the series even before the recent spate of bad press reports. Andy Donchin, director for national broadcast for the advertising agency Carat USA, said advertisers could be wary of the show’s unsavory theme. “We’re all concerned with what content we’re associating ourselves with,” he said.
The most recent “Predator” episode, on July 25, included six national spot ads, significantly fewer than at other hours during NBC’s prime-time periods.
“NBC’s probably thinking about what their return on investment is, and might be thinking it’s better to move on,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice president for research at the ad-buying agency Horizon Media.
“Dateline” first explored the idea of Internet predators in 2004. “There was a time not long ago when stories about Internet crimes were a tough sell for TV newsmagazines,” Mr. Hansen said. “Executive producers were wary because images of people typing on keyboards and video of computer monitors did not make especially compelling TV, even when combined with emotional interviews with victims.”
But the network discovered that face-to-face conversations with would-be predators did make compelling television. The program’s producers work with a pedophile watchdog group, Perverted Justice. Members of the group pose as underage Web surfers and chat with adults and, if the conversation turns sexual, agree to meet in person. When the adults arrive at the meeting place, they are confronted by Mr. Hansen and then arrested.
The first sting, filmed on Long Island in 2004, was startlingly successful, as 18 men came to the decoy house. NBC almost immediately began planning additional investigations, Mr. Hansen said. The third sting, in February 2006, was the first to involve a local police force. That year, “Dateline” produced a total of eight multiday stakeout shows in Ohio, Georgia, Texas, Florida and California.
The 2006-7 television season’s 11 episodes of “Predator” have attracted an average of 7 million viewers, compared with 6.2 million for other “Dateline” programs. The series has also been a boon for MSNBC, NBC’s cable news channel, which replays episodes in prime time and on weekends. In July, 19 of MSNBC’s 25 highest-rated hours were late-night “Predator” reruns.
The confrontations and arrests made for dramatic television and “Predator” quickly became a favorite water cooler topic of conversation. The format — Mr. Hansen waiting with a crew as the unsuspecting man approaches — has been parodied endlessly on late-night television and on YouTube.
But after the cameras stopped rolling, the men charged with felonies made their appearances in court — and those were often decidedly less dramatic.
As a result of three-day sting last September in Long Beach, Calif., for example, 38 men were arrested on camera — the most of any sting that year. Judge Bradford Andrews in Superior Court, who heard 30 of the cases, said most of the men entered a plea and were placed on probation. “Most of them had no prior criminal record whatsoever, not even traffic citations,” he said. Under California law, they are now registered as sex offenders.
Over all, 256 men have been arrested in the operations, NBC said. Slightly fewer than half have been convicted of a crime.
A four-day sting in Texas last November led to 25 arrests and involved one death. Louis Conradt, a local prosecutor, Perverted Justice alleges, engaged in sexual conversations with minors online but did not show up to the decoy house, so the police obtained a warrant for his arrest. As officers and camera crews approached Mr. Conradt’s home in Terrell, Tex., he shot himself in the head. Last month, his sister, disputing the Perverted Justice transcripts, filed suit against NBC, seeking $105 million in damages. None of the men arrested in the investigation have been prosecuted.
Chris Hansen, host and provocateur of “Predator,” discussing child safety with Meredith Vieira on NBC’s “Today” program.
“Dateline” has participated in two stings since the Texas one, most recently in New Jersey in March. The investigation was broadcast in July and averaged 7.1 million viewers.
While remaining popular, the program is also expensive to produce. NBC spent tens of thousands of dollars on each sting, installing hidden cameras and microphones. It has also paid Perverted Justice a consulting fee of roughly $70,000 for each episode. Questions about the network’s relationship with Perverted Justice are raised in a lawsuit filed in May by a former “Dateline” producer, Marsha Bartel, who contends that she was fired because she opposed what she called the program’s unethical production practices.
Her suit said that Perverted Justice did not keep accurate, verifiable transcripts of conversations with potential predators. Lawyers for some of the men arrested in the stings have focused on this point, claiming entrapment.
Ms. Bartel’s lead lawyer, Roger Simmons, said NBC had violated “one of the fundamental canons of journalism. “The line between what journalists do and what law enforcement officers do got fuzzy,” Mr. Simmons said. “The difference between what these reality shows do and what ‘To Catch a Predator’ does got fuzzy, too.”
NBC has said it will defend itself vigorously in both suits.
Perhaps hoping to capitalize on the distinctive “To Catch a Predator” format while softening the show’s unpleasant edge, “Dateline” producers are applying the show’s hidden camera style to a variety of other topics. In March, Mr. Hansen investigated e-mail swindles in “To Catch a Con Man.” In April and again in July, he hunted for criminals who exploit personal data in “To Catch an ID Thief.” The most recent iteration, titled “To Catch an iJacker” and broadcast Aug. 1, tracked down missing iPods.
Mr. Corvo said “Dateline” has an unofficial unit working with Mr. Hansen on other projects incorporating the “To Catch” concept. Half a dozen investigative pieces are in the pipeline, exploring adoption, insurance ploys and financial fraud.
“We feel like we’ve raised awareness of this issue a lot,” he said. “We want to make sure that, going forward, we complement what we’ve done in the past, not just repeat it.”
NBC viewers, meanwhile, are beginning to see other takes on Mr. Hansen’s investigations. Two weeks ago, the late-night host Conan O’Brien imagined the evolution of the brand: he presented mock commercials for “To Catch a Soda Refiller” and “To Catch a Cold.”