Are advertisers to blame for bad TV?
September 30, 2013 3 Comments
Have you ever had someone tell you, "We only watch public television" or "I don’t watch commercial TV"?
This never comes across as a simple statement about personal habits or a description of preferences. It’s a judgment of the same sort as "We never eat junk food" or "I don’t read those sorts of novels."
The denigration of popular culture may have waned toward the end of the 20th century, but what remains is the sense that commercial culture is inherently inferior, and if any artistic quality manages to shine through the fog of commerce, it is despite capitalism, certainly not because of it.
Even in Professor Robert J. Thompson’s Television’s Second Golden Age, a book about high-quality commercial television in the late 20th century, we find this anti-commercial sentiment at the heart of the listed criteria for good TV: "quality shows must often undergo a noble struggle against profit-mongering networks."
But the relationship between advertising and program quality is not at all straightforward. On the one hand, high-brow American viewers spent decades avoiding commercial interruptions — and the low-brow programming that filled the time in between commercials — by leaving their dials set to the local public-broadcasting affiliate.
On the other hand, the era remembered as the Golden Age of Television was arguably pure advertising: sponsors not only attached their names to the TV shows they sponsored — Kraft Television Theater, Goodyear TV Playhouse, The US Steel Hour — they developed shows, produced them, and paid the networks to put them on the air.
As Professor Thompson writes, "This arrangement led to some legendary stories of sponsor interference." Alcoa, producers of aluminum, would not let a tragic drama be set in a trailer park, because trailers are made of aluminum. The Mars company, makers of M&Ms, instructed the producers of one of their shows not to let the scripts mention anything that competed with Mars candies — not even ice cream or cookies!
A particularly chilling example of sponsors’ editorial interference took place in a program about the trials of Nazi war criminals. The American Gas Association required a reference to "gas chambers" to be removed from the story for fear that it created negative associations with their product.
How is it possible that this sponsor-dominated era is remembered for the superior quality of its dramas?
Some of the answer may lie in the selective nature of nostalgia, but according to TV producer Sherwood Schwartz, the sponsors do deserve some credit: in the 1950s, "Sponsors had more power, and the creative people who created the shows had more authority."
There were other benefits of the 1950s arrangement. In his book Television’s Greatest Year: 1954, TV critic R.D. Heldenfels points out that single sponsors were more patient than network executives, willing to wait for good ratings — or they settled for lower ratings because a show increased the sponsor’s prestige.
Art requires risk-taking, and while the screenwriters of the 1950s may have felt that the sponsors they wrote for discouraged risks by disallowing controversy, a much more serious threat to creativity later came from the public sector.
In the 1960s, the Kennedy administration decided that television content was the legitimate purview of the federal government. Newton Minow, JFK’s chair of the FCC, instructed broadcasters to "provide a wider range of choices."
Yet, writes Paul Cantor in Back on the Road to Serfdom, "Minow’s speech resulted in centralizing power in the television industry and thus actually reducing the range of choices in programs."
New shows were aired that displayed the sort of social consciousness the network heads thought would please the Kennedy administration. Media professor Mary Ann Watson described the products of this brief trend as "New Frontier character dramas" — with heroes such as a dedicated public-school teacher, a New York City social worker, even, as Professor Thompson describes one show’s protagonist, "a state legislator trying to pass social programs over the objections of the evil Speaker of the House." But few of the politically correct dramas lasted. Instead we remember the 1960s for shows like Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hee-Haw.
The waxing and waning of government’s interference with television content over the next several decades correlates to the generally perceived rise and fall of quality in the medium, even as the commercial breaks grew consistently longer. The late 1970s marked the beginning of the deregulation trend that we associate with Ronald Reagan’s presidency (even though it began under Jimmy Carter) and the 1980s are now remembered as the renaissance of the TV drama, for shows like Hill Street Blues and Thirtysomething.
Still, even if the shows grew smarter as the commercial interruptions grew ever longer, most of us prefer the commercial-free alternatives when we’re given the choice. And when the deregulation trend allowed new technologies to develop and new forms of the medium to spread, we found ourselves able to watch the best series on VHS or DVD, at our own pace and on our own schedule — or to turn to premium cable channels, not just for commercial-free programming, but for an entirely different level of programming, freed from the government’s restrictions on broadcast television.
The turn-of-the-century slogan "It’s Not TV — It’s HBO" was more than just a clever play on popular connotation; a premium channel’s business model is entirely different from the one that dominated the broadcast industry for half a century.
“If you’re not paying for television, you’re not the customer,” says Jeffrey Bewkes, head of HBO’s parent company. “You’re the product.”
The job of the commercial networks is to deliver quality audiences to their customers: the advertisers.
This means that for decades, the most popular form of entertainment in America was not focused on pleasing the audience; its objective was delivering receptive consumers to the sponsors. This model remained dominant as long as the market was hampered by a federal bureaucracy that controlled broadcast licenses. But a more capitalistic market has eroded the older model and allowed viewers to become customers. We shouldn’t be surprised when entertainment seekers get what they pay for, whether the entertainment is free or comes at a premium.
In the last decade, TV aficionados have begun to talk of a new golden age of television. While the Big Three networks began to respond to competition from newcomer FOX and the threat to their bottom line presented by DVDs and cable, the most significant programs of this new golden age have come from those premium channels where the audience is, finally, the real customer.
Now Netflix, the leading provider of on-demand Internet streaming media, has changed the model yet again by releasing entire seasons of original dramas all at once, allowing audiences the freedom to view as much or as little as they want, combined with the freshness of entirely new, high-quality programming.
As advertising moves into the movie theaters, the industry’s best writers, actors, and directors are leaving the big screen for the freedom and integrity — and the artistic quality — of the small one.
This doesn’t make the advertisers the bad guys in this story. They once acted as a surrogate for the audience when a cartelized industry did not allow that audience to act as customers of their own entertainment. The sponsors simulated, in effect, some of the competition and diversity that comes from a free market. But as the market itself escapes the shackles of government interference, both consumers and producers of quality television have passed a clear judgment against the interruptions and restrictions of advertising.