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— PARISH THE THOUGHT If Nothing Sacred could attract viewers at the same rate that it repels sponsors, ABC would have a huge hit on its hands. But alas, the controversial priest drama, which a Catholic watchdog group has targeted for an advertisers’ boycott (12 companies including Isuzu, Ocean Spray, and Dunkin’ Donuts have pulled out of the show), is still languishing in Nielsen hell. Boycotts are nothing new to ABC, which has used scandal to increase viewership — witness the huge ratings for last season’s coming-out episode of Ellen, and the 1993 debut of NYPD Blue. (Blue in fact flourished despite losing 57 network affiliates its first time out.) But the ado hasn’t done much for Sacred, thanks in part to its ungodly 8-9 p.m. Thursday time slot. The drama’s debut wasn’t a complete disaster; it reached 9.9 million viewers. But when NBC’s Thursday Must See lineup (Friends, Union Square) made its season premiere, Sacred dropped to 6.1 million and last week inched up to only 6.8.

Clearly, the show’s heady (and, to some, heretical) subject matter isn’t served well by its early time slot. ”Do I want to watch a complex drama at 8 p.m. when I’m trying to eat dinner and get the kids to bed?” asks Sacred‘s cocreator and coexecutive producer David Manson, rhetorically. Of course, he’d rather see the show at 10 p.m. or on another night, but ABC doesn’t have an opening unless it cancels one of its equally low-rated Saturday-night dramas (particularly C-16 or Total Security) — and that would mean courting a more conservative audience.

Manson believes Sacred needs time to spread the word that it’s more than a show about a liberal priest. ”It isn’t solely about Catholic issues or a critique of the church. It’s about human concerns. I hate to be glib, but you don’t have to be Danish to like Hamlet.”

Addressing the watchdog group’s attack on Sacred, Manson comes off more like Richard III. ”There will be a significant response to the Catholic League,” he says. ”We tried to be polite about their rhetoric, and perhaps that was a mistake. You will see a mobilized effort of support on behalf of the show,” which, he adds, will not be toned down.

For the moment, ABC and its affiliates are refusing to buckle under boycott pressure. ”The show is where we want it to be creatively, and it’s nice to tell dramatic stories with a protagonist who does not carry a scalpel or a gun,” says the network’s entertainment chairman, Stu Bloomberg.

For each advertiser that pulls out, ABC says it finds another buyer. But Bloomberg remains coy regarding how many weeks Nothing Sacred will be given to find an audience. And if the show’s Nielsen numbers remain in the cellar through November sweeps, who could blame ABC for administering Sacred its last rites?

Nothing Sacred
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