ABC Ads Come Too Close to the Truth

POSTCARD FROM NEW YORK

A few days into the month of August, the ABC network unleashed a monster $40 million advertising campaign to boost its sagging viewership and rejuvenate its tarnished third-place image. With alarming suddenness, the "TV is good" ads with their aggressive canary-yellow backgrounds and cynical images were everywhere--in subways, on buses, on the sides of buildings, in magazines and, not surprisingly, on TV.

Touting no show in particular, the ABC campaign tries to convince viewers that it's okay to indulge heavily in the "harmless habit" of TV-watching, especially now that the fall season is on its way and the network desperately needs higher ratings. But the ads, trying so hard to bring an ironic hipness to the medium, are as a whole deeply contradictory and display nothing more than the network's own anxiety about the future of television. "TV is good" may be the official theme of the campaign, but there's little positive about the phrase on those yellow posters that ABC has plastered onto nearly every available surface. Some of the ads indirectly acknowledge that TV is a waste of time that could otherwise be spent productively ("Life is short. Watch TV;" "Eight hours a day, that's all we ask"). A variation of this theme pokes fun at those of us who eschew couch-potato culture in favor of other pursuits. ("Hobbies, Schmobbies;" "It's a beautiful day. What are you doing outside?"). One poster even suggests the mind-numbing stupidity of the very programs that the ads are supposed to convince us to watch ("Don't worry. You've got billions of brain cells").

Of course, these lines are not meant to be taken entirely seriously. The network is not solemnly proclaiming the worthlessness of television--if total self-deprecation were the objective, ABC executives would be better off emptying out their offices and heading home. Instead, ABC is playing with the popular perception of TV, trying to capitalize on the public's disparaging attitude by reinforcing it: a semi-clever, though desperate, if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them strategy. Media analyst Barbara Lippert considers the campaign rather cutting-edge. "The trendiest thing," she writes, "is the underlying strategy: to acknowledge that the consumer is so inured to being sold, so over-saturated with media, that the only way to break through layers of disinterest is with cynicism."

But is cynicism really the best way for the lowest-rated major network to arouse the public's interest? Ratings for all of the "Big Three" television networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC) have been slipping steadily for years, a sign that people are turning elsewhere (cable, videos, multiplexes) for entertainment. With the exception of an occasional hit like "ER," people are tuning out. The status of network TV in the minds of the public is too weak to support irony. ABC's posters, joking about the pointlessness, lack of impact and questionable quality of most TV programming, come too close to the truth to be funny.

Whenever the ads run longer than a few words, ABC's confusion becomes even more evident. A one-page essay-style ad that appeared on the back of TV Guide shows that ABC, if pressed to express its views in more than a quick catch-phrase, can't decide whether TV is brainlessly inconsequential or culturally important. The essay starts out by proclaiming that TV is not a "Boob Tube" or "Idiot Box," directing angry and defensive words at no one in particular. "For years, the pundits, moralists, and self-righteous, self-appointed preservers of our culture have told us that television is bad.... Well, television is not the evil destroyer of all that is right in this world. In fact, and we say with all the disdain we can muster for the elitists who purport otherwise--TV is good." The essay reaches its own peak of self-righteousness when it points out that TV "makes us laugh" and "makes us cry" and asks, "Can any other medium match TV for its immediacy, its impact, its capacity to entertain?" But this argument, however flimsy, is contradicted in the end: "Let us rejoice in our fully adjustable, leather-upholstered recliners. Let us celebrate our cerebral-free non-activity." Certainly the phrase "cerebral-free non-activity" justifies the phrase "Idiot Box," and ABC, in four little paragraphs, proves the unspecified pundits and moralists right.

There's a good reason why ABC can't make up its mind about television's role in American culture. The major networks are always scrambling to read the public's mind in search of a hit show, so original programs are rarely given a chance while trendier, derivative material easily finds its way onto the air. (Remember the season of failed "Friends" clones a few years ago?) Quality and originality might actually help ABC out of its ratings slump. But the fall schedule shows no signs of change, full of familiar-sounding shows like "Genie," a 90's version of "I Dream of Jeannie." There's a strange contrast between the network's new image and its actual programming: Why bother to create an up-to-the-minute ad campaign when you're trying to sell the same old shows?

The bottom line is that the campaign is a misfire, full of mixed messages. The last line of the essay in TV Guide, just after the celebration of cerebral-free non-activity, asks the reader to "climb the highest figurative mountaintop and proclaim, with all the vigor and shrillness that made Roseanne a household name, that TV is good." But "Roseanne," an ABC success that ended its run last season, always required a cerebrum for optimum enjoyment.

In recent years, the other networks that constitute the "Big There" have stuck with much tamer image campaigns. CBS bundles its programming with the hearty slogan, "Welcome Home," though shows like this fall's "Brooklyn South," a cop show that's heavy on violence, don't seem all that welcoming. NBC has recklessly applied the label "Must-see TV" to everything in its lineup, even though half-witted shows like "Suddenly Susan" are easily skippable. These campaigns are too retroactive to be doing any good--they hearken back to the days when the networks were viewed as friendly providers of family fare, but most people know by now that the media marketplace is anything but friendly. At the very least, though, the CBS and NBC campaigns evoke the general notion that network TV is a place we can turn to for fresh entertainment on a regular basis. That's the right idea.

ABC, on the other hand, is virtually daring us not to watch. More TV ads ($40 million buys a lot of advertising) show flickering bug zappers and mounds of gelatin and ask, "TV. What would you watch without it?" But, as low ratings demonstrate, the public has already accepted that dare and is looking for entertainment elsewhere.

If ABC keeps tempting us to stare at bug zappers and gelatin instead of watching whatever they're filling the airwaves with, we might take them up on the challenge. Or, more likely, pick up a good book.

Erwin R. Rosinberg '00, a Crimson editor, is working at New York magazine this summer.