"A word from our sponsor" is always more than a word. "A pause for station identification" is always more than a pause, and the label "station identification," something of a sham. It gets even shammier during "sweep" months -- May, November and February -- When Nielsen takes more thorough TV ratings than usual.
The only reason for most station identifications is to provide a maypole around which a flock of commercials can dance. The term "station identification" misleads the public into thinking that these breaks between or during programs are somehow mandated by government rules or regulations. No. They are mandated by greed.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does have a rule about station Id's -- Rule No. 73.1201. All it says is that a station must be identified "visually or aurally" once -- only once -- on or near the hour "at a natural break in the programming."
Of course all commercial TV stations identify themselves much more often. Many buy jingles and slogans that turn a simple ID into an ad keyed to themes like "The One and Only TV-9," "Seven's Best" or "Eleven Alive!" Channel numbers and logos are plastered all over cameras, mikes and the blazers of news teams so that viewers will never be able to forget which station they are watching, even though many couldn't care less.
This is solely to benefit the station and is of no use or service whatsoever to the viewer.
Now comes a sweep month. In addition to the 1,160 homes whose TV-watching is monitored by meters, the A. C. Nielsen Co. sends out 220,000 diaries, about half of which will be returned. All the numbers will go into the ratings "book" for the month.
The ratings book for sweep month is read not just voraciously but fanatically by TV executives, salesmen, ad agencies, and anybody with vested financial interests in TV. If these people had studied "Hamlet" half as intensely in college, they would all have gone on to become Shakespearean scholars.
Because the sweeps help determine the ad rates they can charge advertisers, stations will go to great lengths during the month to keep viewers -- especially viewers with Nielsen diaries in their homes -- aware of the station they're watching. Here in Washington, Metromedia's WTTG-TV uses the now common device of leading into and out of every commerical break in its high-rated "M*a*s*h" reruns and other shows with what's called a "bumper."
The bumper, usually five or 10 seconds long, is like a very short commercial that tells viewers which station they are watching, just in case they happen to have that all-important little diary handy. Of course the bumper takes time away from the program (NOT from the commercials inserted into it) and further clutters up airwaves already bottlenecked with ads, promos, teases and gimmicks. All this air junk is designed to please not the viewer -- who could only find it irritating -- but the station's accountant.
By using things like bumpers, stations are sidestepping a Nielsen rule against coming on the air and actually telling viewers with diaries to be sure to get the station's number right when they make their entry in the book.
The practice is fairly common now in radio, where sweep months do not coincide with those in television but can be just as crucial to a station's fortunes. At frequent intervals, announcers will tell listerners to be sure to make the proper entries in their diaries so that the station can make the proper profits on its sales of air time.
"We have this to a far, far lesser extent in TV," says Bill Behanne of the Nielsen Co. in New York. "Maybe half a dozen stations every year will engage in on-air diary promos. It's a no-no, because you're not supposed to distort the returns."
One broadcasting insider here says devices like bumpers, though "absolutely irritating" to viewers, are a way of circumbenting the Nielsen rule and that except for children's show -- where bumpers are required so kids can tell the commercials from the show -- they exist "solely for the purpose of getting viewers to mark it down in their diaries."
As if there weren't enough balderdash, twaddle, interruption and bric-a-brac on television now, stations keep coming up with new devices to turn the airwaves into the amazing clutterhouse. A few years ago the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) said it was going to look into the matter of video clutter -- the blitz of proliferating commercials and promos -- but virtually nothing has been done.
If television is America's "highway No. 1,) as Michael Arlen has called it, then it is a highway with a billboard every two feet, and with engineers working overtime to squeeze additional billboards in between them. It's no wonder viewer/drivers suffer from message fatigue, and who would blame them for searching for another road"