Broadcast TV can’t win by packing more and more spots into its programming. The industry needs to make its ad time a scarce commodity again by codifying commercial limtis. “It has to provide a Tiffany-type environment for the marketer, in contrast to the Internet, which is waiting with jaws wide open to eat broadcasting’s lunch.”
The time has come for heresy. It’s time to bring back the Television Code, specifically the part that limited the number of commercial minutes per hour.
Why should we revive a relic of the 1950s? It’s simple. Survival.
When Richard Nixon’s Justice Department successfully challenged the NAB over the Television Code as an antitrust matter, the folks who stood to gain were the marketers, who, with additional inventory coming on the market, theoretically could get lower prices to put their spots on TV. In theory, the savings would be passed on to the consumer. Practice was another thing.
After digesting the ban on cigarette advertising, television was a growth industry in the 1970s. The growth continued into the 1980s underpinned by an ever-growing demand for commercial time. Broadcast TV was king. Cable was a novelty.
That situation has been turned on its head by a three-year advertising depression that shows no sign of ameliorating.
Into the midst of the advertising depression, where broadcast TV already competes with an ever-expanding array of cable channels, strides a medium with infinite capacity for creating inventory: The Internet. It is impossible for broadcasting to compete with a medium that creates inventory almost out of thin air.
In a race to the bottom against the Internet, broadcasters are bound to lose.
Along the way, abominations such as NBC’s late, unlamented Lipstick Jungle rear their ugly heads. It was about as hard to watch as root canal. The show stopped, it seemed, every five minutes for a commercial break. And the commercial was often for a cosmetic product and featured one of the female stars being made up with it. Lipstick Jungle was not a program. It was a program-length commercial.
Commercial breaks are acceptable, but too many commercial breaks that go on for too long drive away audience. In TV, our product is not what we put on the screen. It’s the eyeballs in front of the screen that we sell.
Commercial television has long had a sort of social contract with its audience. Broadcasters show their stuff for free in return for the audience’s attention to a relatively small commercial load, some of which is actually entertaining. The broadcasters then sell their audience’s attention to marketers, who pay the bills for the service.
Since the Television Code was made voluntary there has been a steady increase in the number of commercial minutes per hour. The original network episodes of I Love Lucy were something like 26 minutes and 30 seconds long. In the intervening five decades, they were cut by about three more minutes. So it became news in the industry when Viacom restored them to their original length to show them on one of its cable channels.
It’s time for the TV industry to remember what made TV commercials special. Creative directors understood the value of simplicity, mnemonics, celebrity and scarcity.
TV advertising virtually built Revlon in the 1950s. Who can forget, “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz”? How about the Mr. Clean genie? Or “Mikey likes it!”? Who didn’t feel like taking a road trip after hearing Dinah Shore belt out, “See the USA in your Chevrolet”?
Broadcasters cannot control the creative choices of marketers and their advertising agencies, but there is one thing broadcasters can do to maintain primacy: Rediscover scarcity.
The time has come for TV broadcasters to agree to limit their commercial load in a new Television Code. It will take a congressional antitrust waiver similar to what Major League Baseball to ensure that the code has some teeth.
Fox showed with its short-lived experiment in limiting primetime inventory that it won’t work in the face of desperate competitors.
To survive, advertiser-supported television has to differentiate itself from other media. It has to become special again. It has to provide a Tiffany-type environment for the marketer, in contrast to the Internet, which is waiting with jaws wide open to eat broadcasting’s lunch.
Ted Faraone is an longtime New York-based PR man. He can be reached at 212-489-1313 or [email protected].