Trapped in an Endless Commercial

In the spring of 1987, I was privileged to attend a 10-week series of lectures at UCLA by Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, a remarkable broadcast pioneer who served as president of NBC between 1953 and 1956.
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(click thumbnail)Pat WeaverIn the spring of 1987, I was privileged to attend a 10-week series of lectures at UCLA by Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, a remarkable broadcast pioneer who served as president of NBC between 1953 and 1956. Talk about seeing the big picture—this man did just that!

Despite being a former advertising executive at Young and Rubicam, Weaver knew the difference between selling products and using the broadcast medium to entertain and educate audiences. Though the notion is mocked today, Weaver passionately believed that broadcasting had a higher mission than just printing money.

On his watch, the “Today” show was created in 1952, followed in 1954 by “The Tonight Show” with Steve Allen and “Home” with Arlene Francis, and then in 1955, “Wide Wide World,” hosted by Dave Garroway.

When I attended his lectures, Weaver was disappointed in the direction taken by the two survivors of his shows. “Today,” when conceived, was intended to introduce American viewers to the best and brightest in our nation—the kind of people we’d all like to meet some day.

“The Tonight Show” would showcase the arts, giving Americans a glimpse of the best of the nation’s theatre, music, dance, and other cultural endeavors. Even if the program fare was slapstick comedy, Weaver insisted there be a cultural element within the fun that would stimulate the viewer.

PROGRAM VISIONARY

At NBC, Weaver championed a cultural policy he called “Operation Frontal Lobes,” a concept whose goal was “the enlargement of the horizon of the viewer.” He carried out the concept in a series of documentaries, public affairs programs, and one-shot specials called “Spectaculars.”

His “Wisdom” series featured interviews with major artists and intellectuals of the day, and had such guests—believe it or not—as Edward Steichen and Margaret Mead. Outside of bold ideas, these giants of American culture weren’t trying to sell anything to the viewers at home.

Of course, Weaver’s dream for the possibilities of over-the-air network television had crashed long before 1987. By then, hardly a guest appeared on either the Today or Tonight shows who was not plugging some product—whether it be a new book, movie or recording.

Unfortunately, since Pat Weaver’s death in 2002, things have gotten steadily worse. Even the television medium’s fiercest supporters acknowledge that commercial television has had a major role in dumbing down American cultural life.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the tight bubble of commercialism that grips today’s television is the loss of at least an attempted objectivity in news. Edward R. Murrow is dead and the great tradition of early broadcast journalism is long gone.

DOWNWARD SPIRAL

In a previous column, I examined the sordid issue surrounding the undisclosed use of video news releases by television stations as part of their newscasts. These videos—now known as VNRs—are essentially commercials disguised as “news” supplied by marketing firms to promote the goods and services of the advertiser.

Of course, this fake news is illegal and the FCC has begun a series of modest fines for violators. Sadly, however, even after VNR use was well publicized and the FCC warned stations to stop, the practice goes on. It’s so bad that some anchors even read the marketing copy word for word on their so-called newscasts.

In a recent letter to FCC members, two viewer watchdog groups—the Center for Media and Democracy and Free Press—reported more fake news violations (from this summer) to the 143 already documented. Most alarming, however, is that some news executives no longer seem to even know the difference between commercial content and legitimate, unbiased news reporting.

In their latest findings, the volunteer investigators found that the use of video news releases is widespread, even in major markets such as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Miami. Documented violators broadcast to more than half of the U.S. population.

These fake news stories are almost never disclosed as marketing materials, the groups found. Worse yet, video freebies are—in 85 percent of the cases—the sole source for the news segment. Many stations have obviously discovered the use of this free marketing video saves them the time and expense of shooting their own.

Also missing is any pretense of subtlety. Most of the video press releases are highly promotional, in-your-face advertisements, and the vast majority is funded by companies to promote specific products. Needless to say, these fake news stories omit facts and viewpoints critical of the sponsoring company or its products.

Now, think of what this means when the topic is a prescription drug or health-related issue. Such drug-related promos nearly always overstate or misrepresent the benefits of the product, the documentation says. This, of course, is outrageous and could lead to people dying from being misinformed about medications.

“Unfortunately, the widespread and undisclosed use of VNRs has become entrenched in television newsrooms,” the groups told FCC members. “Our research indicates that, despite the commission’s laudable actions to date and broadcasters’ insistence that they can and will remedy the situation themselves, more must be done to ensure news viewers’ right to know.”

What should be done, in my opinion, is to yank a few station licenses. It is hard to imagine a greater violation of the public trust than to air fake news stories, especially about products that could injure or even kill viewers. But that’s where we are today—trapped in an endless commercial.

In those Weaver lectures (yes, he was Sigourney’s father and she occasionally visited the classroom), I was struck with the man’s sense of balance in accommodating the requirements of commerce with that of the public interest. He clearly grasped his dual mission.

SOMETHING FOR SOMETHING

Weaver was an ad man, no doubt, and an innovative one at that. He pioneered the practice of networks producing their own programming and then selling ads within the show. That way, unlike the older single-sponsor shows, when an advertiser pulled out it could be replaced without threatening the program.

Yet, Weaver knew very well that in order to profit from those commercials he needed the free use of spectrum owned by the public. He recognized the quid pro quo—the broadcaster owed the public something of genuine value in return for using that resource at no cost.

Sadly, that attitude rubbed broadcasting’s money people the wrong way. The powers that be felt Weaver’s vision was too highbrow and pricey. He was forced out of his job at NBC—though many of his great innovations remain to this day.

What’s missing, of course, is his vision.