Guest Commentary: Television collapsing under clutter’s weight

Dec 31, 2001  •  Post A Comment

As a former television program director, I am appalled by station receptivity to the sheer volume of advertising over the public airwaves. My missive today asks, Holy ring-around-the-collar, Batman, is anyone watching the store? Put another way, who’s guarding the air? Who’s keeping an eye on the sales team? Who’s thinking about the viewer? The general manager? Yeah, right.
During the budget-conscious ’90s, many TV stations trimmed their program departments by eliminating program directors. Surviving PDs were forced to find new roles in station operations or to repurpose their careers in other places.
What was lost 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, the promotion department, sought ever more time for their promos. And the news folks-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 GMs, most of whom earn their posts after navigating the dark, turgid passages of the sales trenches, can always be expected to (eventually) cave to any formula where more ads equals more revenue.
Historically, some station groups had corporate heads that held fast to sound programming practices and assisted the PDs in their cause for “clean air.” I was one so fortunate, having cut my teeth on programming customs forged by one of the pioneers of the National Association of Television Program Executives. Those customs included time for standards and practices and other reviews that made our air look as good as it possibly could. Today, amid the wheeling and dealing of program distribution and syndication, network meetings and rep/ad agency presentations, how much time is allotted to standards and practices? I wonder.
On top of an already soft economy, the events of Sept. 11 had a major effect on stations. Estimates of hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue are mind-boggling. The “Today” show and “GMA” have perfected the moving of product-cassettes, books, movies-and are essentially live daytime infomercials. PBS’s on-air recognition of corporate sponsorship inches ever closer to commercial smarminess. Banner ads blink, beep and move across the computer screen to the point of distraction. Pop-ups are surely one of the more insidious forms of guerrilla marketing ever foisted on the eyeball. Advertising in the classroom is now as commonplace as chalk and erasers. Digital time manipulation allows for eliminating sequential frames of programs like live sports, enabling yet another 30-second spot to be shoehorned in.
And have you ever tried to count the number of things on the screen during CNN Headline News? It’s laughable! While they’re not pure advertising, per se, I submit the carefully orchestrated graphics surrounding a squished anchor only serve 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? One doesn’t. No ifs, ands or buts, the once-noble trade of advertising has gone whack. Gonzo. Out to lunch.
Try to avoid it? Hah! When was the last time you saw an unpainted blimp? 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 and on the jerseys of basketball teams, and-through the magic of electronics-transmitted “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 “Everybody Loves Raymond” or “Philly.” I amaze my wife with my ability to nail when two minutes or 21/2 minutes or three minutes pass and we can return to our show-sponsors be damned! I own three VCRs for three 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 personal video recorders such as 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 its 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 the soft din of revulsion? It’s palpable. And if something doesn’t change, and change soon, the advertiser will eventually dominate the list of things most annoying to Americans, bested only by guests of “The Jenny Jones Show” and telemarketers who call at dinnertime.
My petulance had been focused largely on TV, but I could easily put the Internet in my crosshairs-or newspapers, magazines and billboards. None of this 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 Federal Communications Commission forces the issue. That would by regrettable.
Dare I suggest a return to the days of the National Association of Broadcasters 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 91/2 minutes of nonprogram 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 in more promos or voice-overs, when commercials had to play at the same volume as the shows they were in.
For you PDs still plying your wares in the commercial TV business, you have to be asking yourselves-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.
Ed Fulginiti is president of YourVideoLink.com.