What's warm and cuddly and wholesome and sweet and nice and darling and swell and scrumptious and luscious and yummy-yum-yum? Why, network television, of course! Everybody knows that! But just in case people have let these truisms slip their minds, the networks have embarked on an ambitious and baldly outlandish new campaign to remind them.
Of course, this could also be read as a "Save Network Television" mission, one designed to support the specious fabrication that life without networks would be just this side of a living hell. Whatever, the essential message of the new network fall promotional campaigns--which, as grisly tradition dictates, began officially over the Fourth of July weekend--appears to be, "Reach out--reach out and touch your set."
Network promotion departments aren't so much selling individual shows this year--especially with the "generic" spots that have opened the campaigns--as they are selling the idea that even though network ratings are down, even though the total network share of viewers has plummeted 17 percent over the last eight years, and even though opinion polls show public dissatisfaction with television at a new high, beneath it all Americans still love their little ol' tee-vees as much as ever.
They love them so much, according to these ads, they all but put them over their shoulders and burp them.
Of the three new fall campaigns, NBC's is the most straightforward, keyed to a slightly dictatorial "Be There" slogan and featuring flash-cut scenes from current or forthcoming NBC shows. Still, NBC Entertainment senior vice president Steve Sohmer, who directs the campaign, says from his Burbank office, "We need to make the public love a monolithic network once again."
To accomplish that, ABC and CBS are going the touchy-feely route. ABC's theme is "That Special Feeling!" and CBS boasts, "We've Got the Touch." The handsome, expensively produced promos--not so much high-tech as anti-tech--deploy a veritable armada of mid-American images and symbols designed to evoke in the viewer tender feelings toward television, network television in particular, and to make people think of network TV as one of the irreplaceable components of the good life as lived in an America one might have thought still existed only in Ronald Reagan's mind.
Both the CBS and ABC spots could be mistaken for ads for Pepsi or Lo wenbrau or Bell Telephone or Taster's Choice (the coffee that patches up cracked marriages and mends broken hearts)--any of those sensitivity ads that suck up to emotional vulnerabilities and try to summon forth toasty glows. They want you to think of your first kiss, your first Valentine, your first prom, Babe Ruth's last home run; raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, cupcakes and hollyhocks and yes, God bless it, Mom's Apple Pie!
Or, as the case may be in these changing times, Dad's Apple Pie.
The ads are shameless and yet, it must be conceded, brutally effective if one's guard is down. One can, however, imagine more accurate slogans: ABC's promos tend to induce "That Sinking Feeling" and CBS appears a little "Touched in the Head." Where CBS wants to touch people is in the heart--bango, right in the old aorta. The spots stop at nothing to blast their way in. They feature vignettes of "real" Americans, including a paraplegic finishing a marathon and two deaf lovers signing their mutual devotion, whose destinies usually lead them to their television sets for therapeutic shots of sustenance, or whose lives are literally intertwined with the videophoric lives of their favorite CBS-TV stars.
CBS spokesmen have insisted that the paraplegic in their ad is a real paraplegic, and that the deaf people really are deaf. So that makes it all okay, right? Some viewers may not think so, though the cockles of their hearts may be so severely warmed that they won't care that it's sham, scam and thank you ma'am. The CBS spots deploy firemen, grannies, U.S. flags, Boy Scouts, children and, that guaranteed crowd-pleaser, a baby's bare bottom, in the attempt to associate network TV viewing with goodness and citizenship. They've thrown in everything but Santa Claus and the MX missile.
Richie Havens, no less, was hired to sing the CBS jingle, which goes, "We've got a way of doing things, here in the U.S.A./ A certain style, a certain flair, that comes through ev'ry day . . ./ A touch of laughs, a touch of tears, the friends you've loved for years . . ./ We've got the touch, America--you and CBS!" The spots address the singular viewer as the aggregate "America" the way commercial products often do: Eat this juicy hamburger, America; wear these tight jeans, America; embrace this embraceable toilet paper, America, and so on.
Over at ABC, Maureen McGovern, best known for serenading the sinking of the Poseidon (in "The Poseidon Adventure") warbles the ABC jingle, as plaintive and soulful as the most conscience-tingling protest ballad of the '60s: "Warm and tender feelings, friendships old and new/ Every moment means so much, being here with you . . ./ It's that special time, yours and mine, good as it can be/ It's that special feeling on Ay-Bee-Cee!"
One ABC promo, "Little Boy," is a 90-second story about a cute tyke smuggling a cute puppy to the cute dinner table under his cute overalls (many of the spots are dripping with puppies). The scene is straight out of Reagan's America; indeed, the daddy in the spot looks like a craggy cross between Ronald Reagan and the late Arthur Godfrey. The scenario ends with the family gathered around the set for "That's Incredible!" It comforts them like a fireplace would, and they watch it with a rapture one might think would be reserved for second comings.
In ABC's "Lovers" spot, a pretty nursie leaves the hospital late at night in a downpour and, darn, her VW Beetle won't start (you can't trust those foreign cars). This sparks an instant, breath-mint kind of romance between her and the parking lot attendant. They cozy up in his shack, watching "Dynasty." And in "Sierra Macho," set smack dab in the middle of Busch-beer country, a herd of rangy cowpokes mosey up to a pardner's shack and, after roundin' up a stray dogie or two, and Reaganesquely chopping wood, they surround their buddy and present him with a Sony. Then they all hunker down for a Monday night football game.
It's all impressionistic Pavlovian stuff, and it does seem to harmonize perfectly with the Reagan administration: a profusion of illusions in collusion toward a grand delusion. Going along with the myth, even if you can see right through it, is so much more pleasant than fighting it.
At least NBC will be back with cheekier, sassier ads that don't dangle kitty-cats and lollipops in viewers' faces. Sohmer shook up the industry last year with his irreverent, competition-baiting promos, and he has more planned for this year. Some are already on the air. In one, a young man delivers the latest ratings to actors playing network executives--actors chosen to resemble programming chiefs B. Donald Grant of CBS, Anthony D. Thomopoulos (since promoted to another job) of ABC and Brandon Tartikoff of NBC. NBC once wept at its ratings, but now it's the other guys we see looking crushed by what they read on the scorecard.
"We will probably take on our competition directly in a couple of our time periods in promos this season," Sohmer says. "I thought we might tease 'Dallas' a little this year. You know, we could have 'Manimal' taking a bite out of 'Dallas' or something." "Manimal" is a new fantasy-adventure series that NBC will put up against "Dallas" this fall.
Sohmer says he admires his competitors' cunning campaigns, but wonders about their bottom-line effectiveness. CBS hired the Ogilvy and Mather ad agency to do its spots--the first time it has gone shopping for a salesman for its own product--and high-priced cinematographer Caleb Deschenel ("The Black Stallion") reportedly worked on them, which would help explain their immaculate sheen. ABC's, though conceived in-house, were produced by an outside production company.
"The first thing I think of when I see them is, a lot of money," says Sohmer. "I see the meters going around in my head. We probably spent a third of what the other two guys spent, and I feel like we're playing a different game. We're all on a board with red and black squares, but they're playing checkers and we're playing chess." Sohmer says NBC's ads required six shooting days, CBS's 20 and ABC's 23--at approximately $50,000 a day.
"What we're trying to do with 'Be There' is to learn the lesson of 'Winds of War,' 'Thorn Birds' and 'V,' " says Sohmer. "And that is, when the networks have the events, the public will come to see them. We have to compete not only with the other networks, but with all the other forms of television--cable TV and pay TV--available now. So we have to change fundamentally the way we promote television, make people think there is a once-in-a-lifetime event on tonight, have an event orientation in everything we do.
"I feel like I did 'We Got the Touch' and 'That Special Feeling' campaigns four years ago. I'm not trying to denigrate them, but I think we need something new."
Sohmer points out one potential problem for all the promotional campaigns: Networks have fewer places in which to put the spots. A complicated new formula for commercial time slightly decreases the amount of available promo time, and the old habit of dropping a promo into any unsold commercial slot is complicated by the fact that, as Sohmer puts it in trade lingo, "The networks always seem to manage to sell every 'avail.' "
Could the campaigns be all to no avail, then? Probably not. The networks will make them available for use by their affiliates as well as by themselves. And it's a long time until the new season starts--though, as with the case of the 1984 presidential election, perhaps not long enough. What nobody at the networks will say outright is that there is a hint of desperation to this year's campaigns, to the fact that they're promoting not just that network's shows, but the basic concept of network TV as the first place viewers look for diversion. That just isn't true any more in millions of American homes equipped for other alternatives.
And so in a way, what the fall promos tell viewers, beneath all the fancy and fitfully persuasive trappings, is, "America, you may think you like driving those fancy new cars, but don't forget the good ol' horse and buggy."