PROMOMANIA is an environmental issue. Television has become so infested with plugs, cross-plugs, tie-ins, invented events and promotional gambits disguised as programs that it is hard to tell where the entertainment begins and the promo ends. Soon it may all just be one solid promo and we won't have to worry about the entertainment beginning at all.
Worse, the business of promotion, once an adjnct of show biz, is becoming an industry unto itself; the tail is not only wagging the dog, it has become the dog. The promo mentality now saturates American media and entertainment forms, including movies, books, records and radio. Like a vanishing wilderness, all sanctuaries from advertising and the ploys of the marketplace are shrinking away.
As the dominant mass medium, television sets the pace for the promotion explosion. Virtually every station, including public TV stations and the increasingly ubiquitous "evangelical" religious stations, have promotion departments that prepare 30-and 60-second promos to advertise their programs and keep viewers in a constant state of message bombardment. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) places no limits on the amount of self-promoting a station may do. Station managers pressure their staffs to promote programs, especially the station's local news operation, to the maximum.
"A promo announcement for a program is not considered a commercial unless it mentions a sponsor," says an FCC spokesman in the "complaints and compliance" department. Most TV shows don't have single sponsors but several participating sponsors through spot sales, anyway.And promoting programs without mentioning sponsors? "They can do that as much as they want," the FCC spokesman says.
Stations that belong to the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) have a voluntary limit on the amount of "nonprogram" material they can air within certain hours, such as prime time. Promos fall in the "nonprogram" category will certain glaring exceptions. For instance, a promo for "Happy Days" aired within a "Happy Days" doesn't count; you can promote the same show or a show in the same time period until the audience is blue in the face. Networks now liberally interpret this exception-to-the-rules as meaning that a promo for one movie aired during the telecast of another movie doesn't count, either. The result is an inundation of promo announcements, often repeated over and over during a night's viewing.
The people who turn out promos don't always, if ever, see the shows they're promoting, though they do have a knack for zeroing in on spicy scenes with which to tantalize an audience. Herminio Traviesas, chief NBC censor, says that more than once he's had to intercept a prepared promo that featured a movie scene he'd censored out of the broadcast version of the film.
If the networks were to put as much zeal and initative, and money, into creative programming as they do into bombastic promotion, television might actually get better. The networks spend at least $15 million a year promoting their shows on the air.
Often the promos are misleading.Robert Berger, the producer of NBC's, widely praised "Holocaust", said in New York that he was "annoyed" by the promos NBC ran for the mini-series but that promos were beyond his control. "What annoys me is that they lied," Berger said. "They told people that 'Holocaust' was taken from 'the best selling novel.' That's so trite. Come on. There was no novel until Gerald Green wrote one from his script." Ironically though, the paperback "Holocaust" flooded bookstores prior to the airing of the program and became a bestseller by the time the program actually aired. In this case the hype made itself come true.
We can partly credit or discredit Fred Silverman with the epidemic of plugs and promos now clogging the airwaves. It was while he was at ABC that it occurred to Freddie that since guests on talk shows were able to plug things, why not have the guests on other shows plug things too - preferably, other network shows? So the "guest stars" on ABC's "The Captain & Tenille" one night during Silverman's reign were Ron Howard, Donny Most and Eric Moran of ABC's "Happy Days" and Gabriel Kaplan of ABC's "Welcome Back, Kotter." The guests on "Donny and Marie" are often stars of other ABC shows as well. This policy will certainly not change at ABC, and it's likely to catch on at NBC, too, now that Silverman is there.
He is a man who doesn't believe in letting a minute of air time go to waste. It should all be selling, selling, selling.
Through elaborate promotional tie-in campaigns, television's tremendous power is being harnessed to hype interest for books, record albums and, especially, movies. Producer-director Irwin Allen's new disaster film, "The Swarm," is a tedious burst, but with crafty maneuvering, Allen has used television to support the idea that this is the big new movie everybody's talking about. Allen says he got 72 U.S. TV stations to show his promotional "documentary" short. "Inside the Swarm," for free, and a version of it also aired on the CBS television network last week.
Allen boasted of this coup to United Press International. "If we had to buy the time on 72 stations, it would cost us $5.5 million," he said. "The TV stations sell spots on the documentary and make a fortune. Everybody wins."
Everybody? What about TV viewers who don't realize that the TV "documentary" about "The Swarm" was produced by the same people who made the movie - that in effect they are watching not a program, at all, but a protracted commercial.?
The FOC may not have regulations about program promos, and it may let stations get away with murder when it comes to saturating the airwaves with commercials (recently FCC commissioners came near tears because their own rules required them to reprimand a Washington radio station for broad-casting more commercial time than it logged for the official station records), but there is an FCC rule against something called "program-length commercials."
Broadcasters have found a loophole in this rule however which has opened the airways to any movie promoter with the big bucks to pay his win in.
The trailblazer in this new genre was "Disco-Fever," a so-called TV special designed to promote, and made by the producers of, the movie "Saturday Night Fever." The one-hour special, a hasty mish-mash of interviews conducted at the movie's Hollywood premiere and teaser scenes from the film itself, played on markets all over the country, and often garnered big ratings. In Washington it actually was shown twice, first on Channel 9 (WDVM) and then on Channel 5 (WTTG).
Stations got the program virtually free, through a barter system. "No cash changes hands," says Tim McDonald, WDVM program director. "We take the program in exchange for inventory; you pay in inventory rather than cash." Inventory means commercial time, for the dubious privilege of showing "Disco-Fever," WDVM accepted a certain number of spot commercials for the film and aired them at various hours.
The technicalities that keep programs like "Disco-Fever" from being classified as program-length commercials by the FCC are that no spots advertising the movie are aired during the show and that the show's title cannot be exactly the same as the movie's those, for some reason, are the FCC's rules.
Through these loopholes a parade of sloppily made promo films have followed "Disco-Fever" onto the air. The promos have built-in breaks for stations to insert locally sold commercials of their own.
Thus have we come to what broadcasters may consider an ideal state of television: They are actually able to get viewers to sit still for commercials that are interrupted by commercials.
Universal saw the success Paramount had with "Disco-Fever" and so produced a half-hour film hyping its youth-oriented release, "FM", one of the major movie bow-wows of the year. The TV special was called "FM - Coming at You at the Speed of Sound." It was as entertaining as Tupperware, but the NBC television network obtained it for its five owned stations.
Wes Harris, vice president for owned stations at the network, said he considered the program "an entertainment special" and said airing it was a test to see "if this kind of form could work in access," meaning the 7:30 p.m. "access" time period that comes just before prime time. Fortunately, the "FM" special performed as poorly in the ratings as the movie did at the box office. Yet the trend toward using television as a movie plugger goes on.
Promotional campaigns now get the same kind of industry attention once lavished on the subjects of the promotion themselves - you remember, the movies they used to make and the TV shows they used to make. Trade papers even review promotional campaigns. Producers of the dreadful "Thank God It's Friday," one of those movies that proved to be mainly a promo for its own soundtrack album (a successful sountrack album may now out-gross the movie it comes from, as "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease" are doing), bragged in a full-page ad in Variety that their campaign had been acclaimed "the most spectacular movie promotion ever" by another trade paper.
That big sockoo blitz included "a special two-part Merv Griffin Show to salute "Thank God It's Friday." Of course they didn't really mean "salute". They meant "plug." By supplying talent and defraying some of the costs for talent involved (if, say, a rock group featured in the movie is also featured on the TV show), movie producers can buy their way onto many talk shows, including the redoubtable Merv's. Thus did Merv also deem it prudent to salute Allen's "Swarm" movie in May. In Washington, Mervie airs on Metromedia's Channel 5, a station more than generous with time for movies waiting to be plugged. The station aired "A Weekend of Foul Play," a one-hour "glamor-filled" promo for the foul new comedy "Foul Play", on Friday.
Paramount has found additional ways to make the promo-chain profitable. It stages invented events, "premieres" of its major films at a convenient L.A. movie theater and runs newspaper ads ahead of time to secure a big crowd. People are told that if they show up at the premier - which is only being held so that footage from it can be included in the TV promo - they may get to be on television.
Twentieth Century-Fox, producer of Bette Midler's upcoming movie "The Rose," went that trick even one better. They used newspaper ads to recruit people who were to pay $2 each for the thrill of being extras during the shooting of concert scenes for the film. The plan fell through when the college hosting the affair pulled out. Real extras had to be hired by Fox - and paid - at another location.
Movies themselves become practically secondary in such cases. The promotion, is the work of art. Television programming becomes secondary as well. The cash register scores the triumph.
Industrious minds are at work to find other ways that television can be used to maximize the profitability of a hot property. As a result, more and more television time may go to promos, which are essentially commercials, until television risks choking on them and viewers are drowning in spiels.
There are new little landmarks in the annals of promotion all the time. NBC scored one on April 24 when it took time on its "Nightly News" to promote a Gerald Ford appearance on the "Today" show which was in fact a promo for a Gerald Ford special on the network the next night. The ploy failed however, and Ford barely drew flies.
In Washington, Channel 20 (WDCA) is barely a television station at all. It is more like a movie projector hooked up to a transmitter. Local production and local programming are virtually nil - and yet there are staff members working full time to produce promos for the station's shows, and there is no apparent limit to the number of times promos might be shown on the air. Station owner Milt Grant personally saw to it that "The Bastard", an expensive syndicated first-run mini-series, be promoted with, among other things, "crawls" of type that ran along the bottom of the screen, in the style of emergency weather information or news bulletins.
The station ran not one but two of these across the screen during the last 10 minutes of the motion picture classic "Citizen Kane" one night. Wouldn't Orson Welles be surprised to find out that "the greatest movie of the sound era," as it has been called, was turned into just another TV promo.
Promos for the next mini-series bought by Channel 20, "Evening by Byzantium," began showing up on the station a full month before the air date of the program itself.
But Channel 20 hit the ne plus ultra of promomania recently when it ran a week's worth of old episodes of "The Abbott and Costello Show." The station managed to run a promo for "The Abbott and Costello Show" during one night's telecast of "The Abbott and Costello Show."
That was perhaps for people who forgot what they were watching.
The madness goes on, the abuses go on, and the promotion goes on. It becomes more than an annoyance, it becomes an environmental blight. It takes away from the TV audience its last few minutes of hassle-free, hustle-free, hype-free television viewing, and it helps saturate our society with the buy-buy-buy imperative so pervasively that it cannot be escaped.
Sitting near a Los Angeles swimming pool and watching an airplane write commercial messages in the sky, one may think to himself, "This is the limit, the last barrier has fallen. "But it hasn't. Flying back East on a DC-10, one looks into the seat pocket and notices something strange about the air-sick bag.
Something strange? Well not really. The air-sick bag has an ad on it. Nothing strange about that at all.