JUST ASK ANY COW: branding is a pain in the butt

Apr 12, 2004  •  Post A Comment

It’s fortunate, perhaps, that “CBS’s” (“see-bee-esses”) is hard to say, and “CBS News’s” even harder. If they weren’t, Dan Rather would probably have to do what Tom Brokaw does on NBC: identify every correspondent on the newscast he anchors as a CBS or CBS News employee. Well who else’s employee would they be? Nobody’s, unless it were some special imported report from the BBC or Al-Jazeera or whatever. But that doesn’t matter. That’s not the point.
The point-of the networks’ evening newscasts-has become promotion, not news. It could probably be said for network prime-time programs too, but the news is supposed to be special, separate and untouchable (ha ha). In this new mad age of onscreen clutter, when networks violate the once-sacred frame that belongs to whatever program material is being squeezed in between commercials and promos, the networks see the shows themselves as bulletin boards to which they can attach teasers for upcoming broadcasts or just reinforce the network’s name and image. Branding-that’s the point.
gewgaws galore
Think of the shows as refrigerator doors that networks proceed to decorate with as many Post-It notes as they can. TV Land and Nick at Nite use a simple, slim banner that says first “Up Next `Leave It to Beaver”’ and then “After that, `Happy Days.”’ But the bigger and fatter the network, the more numerous and obnoxious the promotional tchotchkes and gewgaws.
Time is finite and networks have squeezed as many promos into the available time as possible. In fact, they’ve literally squeezed the closing credits of shows, thus making most of those credits unreadable, so they can devote at least half the screen to promos. Not one little parcel of pixels can go to waste. The pixel-packin’ networks keep finding new places to post their signs and billboards. Eventually, perhaps, they’ll plaster them right over the actors’ faces.
Maybe it’s always a mistake, but it’s not unheard of to see one promo overlapping and even somewhat obscuring another. With HDTV, there’ll be a bit more electric acreage to divide up between program matter and promo matter, which is probably the only thing about the wider, clearer picture that the networks find promising.
When broadcasters slip a promo onto an electron field that by rights belongs to “Survivor” (where in fact product placements already integrate commercials into the program) or “Will & Grace” or “According to Jim,” that intrusion should be counted as nonprogram material, but then who’s counting? The FCC is too busy counting four-letter words to bother with this cynical rip-off of the public, something far more worrisome than Dennis Franz’s butt or even Janet Jackson’s other nipple.
We expect sneaky-sleazy promos in prime time, but for Brokaw and other newscasters to do it on their programs is another reminder of how the value of news to the networks has plummeted. Sometimes it seems like a nuisance (a newsance?), so they figure, “At least let’s jam promos in there to get some value out of the shows.”
So Tom Brokaw will say into the camera, “In depth tonight (that’s a joke right there), a look at the skyrocketing costs of Medicare. NBC’s Judy Johns reports. Judy?”
“Thank you, NBC’s Tom Brokaw. NBC News has learned that Medicare costs will skyrocket in the years ahead. For the details, let’s go to NBC’s John Judy at the Mayo Clinic, which so far as I know is not (yet) NBC’s.”
“Thank you NBC’s Judy Johns, this is NBC’s John Judy at the Mayo Clinic, where doctors confirmed to NBC News that Medicare costs will indeed skyrocket in the years ahead. To see the figures, visit our Web site, NBC’s MSNBC-dot-com, or write a letter to NBC’s NBC News, 30 NBC’s NBC Plaza, New York 10020. Back to you, NBC’s Tom.”
“Thank you, NBC’s John Judy and NBC’s Judy Johns. Tonight at 8 Eastern time, 7 central, 8 mountain and 5 Pacific, NBC’s `Dateline NBC’ will feature an interview with the Surgeon General, whose name has slipped all our minds, about the skyrocketing costs of Medicare. NBC’s Stone-Cold Phillips will anchor the NBC report.”
Now hold on. We know all those people are NBC’s. We don’t expect them to be ABC strays or CBS escapees. Besides, there’s a peacock or an eye or an “ABC” in one corner of the screen to remind us at all times what network we’re watching. Imagine the consternation and alarm in the American household if this carefully-balanced-though-overloaded system were to malfunction: “Honey, come here! NBC’s Tom Brokaw has a CBS eye in the corner and he just introduced `Eye on America’ with `NBC’s Bill Plante’ of CBS News! And-Bill Plante is wearing a deep blue shirt and a bright pink tie!”
Dan Rather prides himself on being a team player, perhaps partly out of Superstar Guilt and fear of being known as a Bigfooted Anchormonster. He’s a full-service broadcaster. This is very admirable, except that it makes Dan perhaps a tiny tad too willing to promote other CBS News productions in the interest of a unified front. What you think will be a self-contained report on “The CBS Evening News”-self-containing actual news-will turn out instead to be just a glorified promo for that night’s “48 Hours Mystery” (oooh!) or “60 Minutes II.” Yielding to no man or woman in my admiration for Rather, I admit I have to cringe when he team-playerly says at the end of the broadcast, “See you in a few, on `Sixty Two.”’
That might be cutting it a bit thick. Of course CNN does it, ABC does it, NBC does it, everybody does it. That doesn’t make it nice, or palatable, or kosher. The people at the news divisions often appear to be desperately clinging to whatever little peep of dignity they can salvage from this cold and ruthless age of brand-brand-brand and promote-promote-promote. It may be a losing battle, but they have to keep fighting, keep resisting, or they’ll end up “branded” in the old-fashioned Western way-with the network’s logo virtually if not literally burned into their butts.