As a former television Program Director, I am appalled by station receptivity to the sheer volume of advertising over the public airwaves. Never mind content or the creative - standards are a mess there, too - but we'll leave that for another column. My missive today begs the question, "Holy ring-around-the-collar, Batman, is anyone watching the store?" Put another way, who's guarding the air? Who's hawking the Sales team? Who's thinking about the viewer...the General Manager? Yeah, right!
As the budget-conscious 90's approached, many TV stations trimmed their Program Departments by eliminating Program Directors. Surviving PD's were forced to find new roles in station ops or re-purpose careers in other places. What didn't reconcile then any more than it does now was the role the PD played in safeguarding on-air discipline. It was the PD as Lone Ranger when the Sales Department tried every trick imaginable to increase the commercial traffic within programs and station breaks. Their second cousin's, the Promotion Department, sought ever-more time for their promos. And News - voracious for station time anywhere, anyway, anyhow - were complicit in most scenarios; after all, the revenue to support or expand news was inextricably linked to more ads and more promos. And GM's, most who earn their posts navigating the dark, turgid passages of the Sales trenches, can always be expected to (eventually) cave to any formula where more ads = more revenue.
Historically, some station groups had corporate heads that held fast to sound programming practices and assisted the PD's in their cause for "clean air." I was one so fortunate, teeth cut on programming customs forged by one of the pioneers of the NATPE. I assure you the NATPE that is breaking apart today holds less and less resemblance to the NATPE he helped found and the meetings of the 70's and 80's I attended. There we made time for standards and practices and other reviews that made our air look as good as it possibly could. Amid the wheeling and dealing of program distribution and syndication, network meetings and rep/ad agency presentations, I wonder how much time is allotted to standards and practices today...I wonder?
September 11th on top of an already soft economy has impacted most every facet of life and advertising is no different. Estimates of hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue are mind-boggling. I guess that's why AMC now interrupts movies for commercial fare. The Today Show and GMA have perfected moving product - cassettes, books, movies - and are essentially live daytime infomercials. PBS's on-air recognition of corporate sponsorship inches ever closer to commercial smarminess. Rush Limbaugh's radio show starts later and ends earlier as breaks are expanded. Banner ads blink, beep and move across the screen to the point of distraction. Pop-ups are surely one of the more insidious forms of guerilla marketing ever foisted upon the eyeball. Advertising in the classroom is now as commonplace as chalk and erasers. Digital time manipulation allows for compressing sequential frames of programs like live sports, enabling yet another: 30 second spot to be shoehorned-in. Radio employs similar technology to squeeze speech called a "cash box". Get it? TV Guide and Readers Digest expand the use of cardboard pages that are undersized or whose sheer thickness flop open to - you guessed it - ads. (The first thing a friend of mine does with these pubs is rip the cardboard out; if Madison Avenue counts that as eyeball time, so be it.) "Popsicle signs" during political campaigns that sprout like dandelions on every spare foot of public land blight neighborhoods and traffic routes everywhere. Even direct mail to the house wrapped in envelopes suggesting "Important Documents Enclosed" and "Dated Material" have gotten into the action. I learned long ago that "Open Immediately" usually means just another Master Card solicitation. And have you ever tried to count the number of things on the screen during CNN Headline News? It's laughable! While not pure advertising per se, I submit the carefully orchestrated graphics surrounding a squished anchor only serves to blur the line between news and exploitation. How does one square this cluttered mess with the simplistic, highly effective, mesmerizing use of a hand-held erasable tablet employed by Tim Russert on election night 2000? You can't. No ifs, ands or buts, the once-noble trade of advertising has gone whack. Gonzo. Out to lunch.
Try and avoid it? Hah! When was the last time you saw an unpainted blimp? Stadiums and other venues are no longer named for cities or significant geography or accomplished athletes and individuals - rather for dot.com's and other acronyms that are as warm and fuzzy as dry ice. There are bottles of New Orleans Saints' hot sauce, Washington Redskin fishing tackle and Baltimore Raven contact lenses. Advertising is imbedded in the ice of hockey arenas, on the helmets of football players, on the jerseys of basketball teams, and through the magic of electronics, "virtually" on the walls and padding behind home plate!
For my part, I have become an expert at intuitively knowing precisely how long a commercial break lasts within the standard Everybody Loves Raymond or Philly. I amaze my wife at the ability to nail when 2 minutes or 2&1/2 minutes or 3 minutes passes and we can return to our show, sponsors be damned! My car radio never - let me repeat that - NEVER plays a commercial! I have 20 pre-sets on the radio and a half-cocked cassette within a nanosecond of commercial inventory. I own 3 VCR's for 3 television sets with the "fast forward" button well worn on all. And I nearly swell with pride over the remote control prowess of my children; commercial pods don't have a chance! I shudder to think what they could do with PVR's like ReplayTV or TIVO!
It is not my intention to be invective in all this but c'mon, Madison Avenue, in your heart you know I'm right. I fully understand and embrace the need for ad-supported commercial television. But the mind-numbing glut of commercials, ever expanding, is killing the goose that laid the golden broadcast egg! In the rush to secure eyeballs, consider the crush of skulls exacted, too. I'm very close to the production community today and all their efforts for superior creative are withered by the sheer constancy of ad on top of ad on top of ad on top of ad (on top of ad, on top of...) Who can watch a commercial, learn or be intrigued by the product and be compelled to action when the brain is so dulled into commercial overload that the only result is that soft din of revulsion? It's palpable! And if something doesn't change, and change soon, the advertiser will eventually dominate the list of most-annoying Americans, bested only by guests' of Jenny Jones and telemarketers who call at dinnertime.
My petulance has been focused largely on TV. But I could easily place the internet in my crosshairs, or newspapers, magazines and billboards. None of which pleases me, by the way, for I use all public media as much as the next guy - for entertainment, information and employment. My fear is that calls like mine will fall on deaf ears and the self-governing initiative that could halt this insanity won't occur until the cold stare of the FCC forces the issue. That would be regrettable.
Dare I suggest a return to the days of the NAB Code? Back to the time when a "man in white" was actually a doctor and not an actor, when a siren's wail was reserved for real emergencies, when only one car ad ran per-pod, when 9&1/2 minutes of non-program content in prime time meant just that - and no more, when program credits couldn't be squeezed and rolled at warp speed so as to cram more promos or VO's, when commercials had to play at the same volume as the shows they were in, etc.
For you PD's still plying your wares in the commercial TV business, you have to be asking yourself as ratings dip and your share of market erodes to alternative media, could it be the rank miasma of too damned many commercials? C'mon folks, the clutter has got to stop!
The above editorial was written by Ed Fulginiti (YourVideoLink.com) and published in the December 31, 2001, issue of Electronic Media. Used by permission.
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