Another Nail in the Coffin?

On the same day that Roy E. Disney quit the board of the company that bears his name with a letter that takes CEO Michael Eisner to task, saying in part, "The perception (is) by all of our stakeholders - consumers, investors, employees, distributors and suppliers - that the Company is rapacious, soul- less, and always looking for the 'quick buck' rather than the long-term value which is leading to a loss of public trust;" Disney's ABC television network announced an agreement to develop programming together with MindShare, an ad agency aiming to embed marketing messages into ABC shows.

"Rapacious, soul-less, and always looking for the 'quick buck'?" Or, first mover in the new world of television?

To Ralph Nader's Commercial Alert, a nonprofit group which has asked the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission to investigate current product-placement practices on TV, there is no debate. Gary Ruskin, the organization's executive director, believes these arrangements could transform programs into nothing more than infomercials and are "inherently deceptive."



Although the deal, according to the WSJ, allows advertisers to have an unusual amount of influence over story lines and characters, Alex Wallau, president of the ABC Television Network, says product placement "will not drive the screenwriting, it will not drive the creative process." Or is it only a matter of time before Sipowitz says to Jones, "That's a fine looking Chrysler Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo Limited yer drivin' there, sport." And Jones replies, "Yeah, got it right after we came back from Disney World's exciting three-day adventure cruise."

Between Nielsen's "lost boys," a dismal fall ratings season, and the rapid growth in distribution by cable companies and private citizens of commercial- skipping digital recorders, the networks are all scrambling to figure out how to keep the Internet, cable, radio and print from preying away market share. Perhaps 2004 will be the year the ad agency community does not jump like lemmings into the upfront sea.

But there is a great deal network TV can do before making content-altering, audience-angering deals like this one. Here is a short list. Stop dicking around with the schedule. People who like certain shows often plan their week's to make certain they are in front of the set for the new episode. With out a word of warning, you slap on a rerun or sub in another program making your most loyal viewers feel like you have no regard for their time (or loyalty). Then, after years of saving Tuesday at 10 for a favorite show, you move it to Friday at 8. Thanks a bunch.

Get the crap off the screen. I'm sure the 15 minutes or so of commercials and show promotions CMR says you run every hour, doesn't count those annoying show logos and pop ups that run over top of the show once it resumes. Take a page out of the Internet's play book and stop looking for new ways to distract your audience.

Rollback the show promotion announcements forced on sports and news casters. They might characterize them as "reminders" but we hear them as commercials and perceive them as one more brick out of the wall that supposedly separates church and state.

Figure out pay per view. HBO already has. Through certain cable systems you can watch hit HBO shows any time for only $5 a month. It is one more way cable is stealing your audience.

Quit pandering to the lowest common denominator. While "reality" shows are pulling OK numbers, so too a while back were evening game shows. As they faded so will reality TV. Meanwhile pandering gives viewers the sense that all the best quality programming is coming from the cable networks.

Outbid cable for first rights to block buster movies. Who cares if you have a "broadcast premiere?" It was on cable and out on DVD months ago.

Think out of the box. Ford's sponsorship of the commercial-free season premiere of "24" on Fox was appreciated by audiences who watched the long- form show starting and show ending commercials because they were fun and different and tied into some of the drama of 24 itself.

While allowing advertisers to help "develop" programming might seem out of the box, it is really just a throw-back to the 50s when sponsors totally controlled content. Broadcast TV was new then and wasn't up against cable and the Internet for viewer mind/time share. No matter how subtle you think this "new" partnership will be, it will in the end, be just one more reason for viewers to abandon the networks they grew up with.

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