It was a honey of a plug. Right there in the middle of an ABC Monday Night Football game, up popped Olivia Newton-John to ballyhoo her forthcoming ABC special. And what was on Olivia Newton-John's ABC special? Guest stars who just happened to be promoting other ABC shows. Plug upon plug within plug.
"Listen, Olivia Newton-John can come on wherever I am," says Donald Ohlmeyer, producer of ABC Monday Night Football. "Promoting is part of the game. It is part of the television industry. It's an accepted part of the medium."
Did he say part ? This year more than any other, the networks are promotion-crazy. ABC programming whiz Fred Silverman believes that promotion may not only be part of the game, but the game itself. A klutz of a variety show, "The Captain and Tennille," is a hit on ABC, and network executives call it the hit that promotion made - with 30 different spots, each aired ad infinitum during the summer before the show went on the air.
Other networks have taken up the Silverman challenge; rather than experimenting with new program types or new talents - admittedly a fairly heretical notion - the networks, and local stations as well, are finding new ways to squeeze in additional plugs and promos (for "promotions," as in, advocacy) during program time. Why? Not, presumably, just to drive the viewing nation out of its mind. Just to try as hard as possible to keep viewers from switching to another channel. The networkese for this is: "Maximize audience potential."
It's not illegal, like plugola, which involves under-the-table benefits to broadcasters for favors rendered on the air. No, this is a favor the broadcasters do for themselves, and they have proven annoyingly generous about it. They call it cross-plugging or interior plugging. We can call it promola - for promotion on a edpidemic level.
All the networks do it, but ABC is the leader in this particular gambit and, so far this year, the leader is ratings as well. The philosophy calls for the stars of one ABC series to materialize on another ABC series, with both shows theoretically benefitting. Thus the "guest stars" on this week's "Donny and Marie" show will be Captain Kool and the Kongs, an artifically induced rock group that stars in an ABC Saturday morning show which is, like "Donny and Marie," produced by Sid and Marty Krofft.
Last Monday's guests on the "Captain and Tenille" show were Ron Howard, Donny Most and Erin Moran of the network's "Happy Days," Gabriel Kaplan of the network's "Welcome Back, Kotter" and Roz Kelly as "Pinky Tuscadero," who bounced and plugged her way from show to show to show until, finally, she will be appearing on her own ABC series later this season.
And so on and so on and scooby-doobydoo.
Of course, anyone can play promola, and sometimes it's gratifying to see the networks beaten at their own game. NBC liberally laced its telecast of "Super Bowl XI" a week ago with plug after plug for its big-budget TV movie "Raid on Extebbe," scheduled for later that night; with plugs for a Bob Hope golf tournament NBC plans to televise, and with plugs for a Ken Norton fight which will not be telecast until March 2. "It's not too early to talk about it," burbled sportscaster Curt Gowdy.
But the plug all sublime during the Super Bowl wasn't for an NBC show. It was a brilliant little maneuver on the part of Walt Disney productions, which staged the halftime show at NFL request and sneaked into it a generous plug for "the new Mousketeers," who will star in "The New Mickey Mouse Club," a syndicated daytime programming venture into which the Disney organization has sunk a chunky $11 million. The big talk in Hollywood the day after the Super Bowl was not about the football game but about the craftiness of the Disney promotion for "Mouse Club" before an audience estimated at up to 100 million viewers.
It's the talk of the whole town!" exclaimed a publicist for the show. "Disney just decided they were going to pull out all the stops. Now we're going to promote the hell out of this thing!"
We are living, we can scarcely forget, in the golden age of hype. New motion pictures like "King Kong" and "A Star is Born" are so heavily ballyhooed that their very ad campaigns become news, even when the pictures themselves turn out to be nuclear bombs. Ever since television learned how poerful television was, promotion has been its way of life. In the '50s, for examfple, at the end of each TV show came about 90 seconds of credits, with a nice little theme song played under them. No more. In the '60s it was decided that this was dead time - it wasn't producing any revenue - so now the closing theme is always faded under an announcer who tells you about one, two or even three uncoming network shows.
So on CBS, for instance, as you listened to the closing theme of a Saturday night show last October, you suddenly heard an announcer shout, "Sunday! Kojak hunts a child molester!!! Then, Delvechhio hunts a car-thief-turned-killer!!!" Who, indeed, could resist such an inviting double-header as that?
But that's not enough promotion. CBS and ABC now include a built-in 30-second promotion space just before the closing credits of every network show. During the last two minutes of a recent episode of "What's Happening" on ABC, the 30-second space was filled with promos for upcoming "Barney Miller" and "Tony Randall" shows, followed by a spoken promo over the closing credits for "Wonder Woman" and "The $6 Million Man," followed by a post-credits spot for the next episode of "Starsky and Hutch."
This was followed by what is ludicrously called a "station break." Networks are always giving their stations the chance to identify themselves. In fact, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires at most one such station identification per hour, and this could be done in five seconds with the station's call letters superimposed on the screen. Station breaks are really there for local stations to sell advertising time and ballyhoo their own programs.
In Washington and many other cities, nothing gets ballyhooed quite so much as the stations' nightly newscasts, which are competitive and lucrative. So "newsmen" turn into advertising men who try to lure you to their news with lines like, "Income tax abolished. Details at eleven." (In Los Angeles the operative phrase is "Film at eleven," which has inspired some pretty funny jokes by Johnny Carson on his "Tonight" show - for example, "Meteor to destroy earth. Film at eleven.")
The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), a voluntary self-regulatory club to which many major stations subscribe, recently declared that if such announcements contain actual and comprehensible news - no matter how skeletal - they can be considered not as advertising time but as program time, even though their function is purely promotional.
Newscasts themselves often contain station plugs - in fact, they are riddled with them. Sportcasters lead their reports with stories about sports events to be televised by their home stations, and then thoughtfully inform viewers of the program time - "and you can see it right here on Channel 4." This is considered information and not advertising by the station.
Channel 4 here recently reported proudly that one of its anchormen had been named a "Washingtonian of the Year" by a local magazine. Concelvably that could be considered news - except that in its report, Channel 4 failed to mention the names of any of the other 16 people who were also cited by the magazine.
When Channel 5 in Washington produced a documentary drama on the Patty Hearst trial last year, the station's "Ten O'Clock News" show just happened to include a highly favorable review of the upcoming broadcast.
"Now hold on," says Channel 5 news director Hal Levenson when asked aboiut the news value of the review. "That was a mixed review in the first place. It was generally favorable, true, but it took a few shots at the show. But the critic and I both agreed the show was pretty damn good. He wrote a review and showed it to me and I said okay. That is the only instance of that kind of thing that we have ever done."
Even the opening of a newscast can be tunred into an ad. Channel 11 in Baltimore begins its show-bizzy happy-talk late news with an announcer bellowing, "From Channel 11 - Maryland's leading news station - this is, ACTION NEWS!!!" One of the station's anchormen, Mike Hambrick, participated in a news promotion spot in which two women corner him near a phone booth and one says she always watches Hambrick on the news because he is so cute. Anything goes in the wonderful world of promola.
What does the FCC say about all of this? Virtually nothing. "A promotional announcement for a program is not considered a commercial unless it mentions a sponsor by name," says an FCC spokesman. "They can promote programs as much as they want - until they drive viewers crazy, presumably." The FCC's only concern is "to make sure the public isn't fooled" or misled into thinking a paid promotion is a spontaneous and innocent occurence. For instance, a celebrity who owns a hotel cannot go on talk shows and casually mention how wonderful his hotel is unless it is made clear that he is the owner and/or that his appearance on the program was conditional upon his plugging his interest.
But the FCC assumes that when an actress arrives at Johnny's couch or on Dinah's loveseat and starts rambling on about her latest film, viewers are aware that the plugging is the chief reason she's there, so no official announcement to that effect is required.
Can't we depend on some sort of restraint by networks and stations? No, we can't. "Oh, I suppose there might be a point of diminishing returns," says Symon Cowles, who runs the on-air house ad campaigns at ABC. "But you have to remember, we have more time available to us than any single sponsor could possibly afford to buy." Therefore, why not use it to sell the network to the viewers?
"There is a network requirement that at least one time during each of our three hours we promote a prime-time show," notes football producer Ohlmeyer. That doesn't include whatever promotions for other ABC sports shows he can squeeze in. "I think the network would like us to do more, but there's some resistance from us. We don't want to alienate our audience. At times, we may have stepped over the foul line, to the point of irritating people. But you don't set out to irritate people. You really don't. Sometimes you just go a little overboard."