YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Now, a column from our sponsors

June 18, 2003|BRIAN LOWRY

Those "The Must-See Movie of the Year!" blurbs in this newspaper and the irritating pop-up ads on the Web site attest that The Times is a for-profit enterprise. Yet perhaps naively, such endorsements are kept distinct from editorial content -- unlike in broadcasting, where fears of skipping, zipping and zapping have hastened ad seepage into every pore of TV and radio shows.

So in our ongoing efforts to stay on the cutting edge, we bring you a column from our sponsors.

First, some background. The TV industry won a small reprieve last week when digital video recorder company ReplayTV (a rival of TiVo) sought to mollify Hollywood by dropping its ad-skipping function. Media buyers also committed a record sum to the networks this year for prime time, indicating the old system of buying commercials still has plenty of life in it.

Eventually, however, technology will triumph, in much the way weeds sprout through cracks in the pavement and kids download songs. That inevitability explains the Coca-Cola cups and Ford Focus moments in "American Idol" as well as the WB's upcoming "Pepsi Smash," a concert series providing title sponsorship to the world's other major purveyor of fizzy sugar-water. It's also why more news and talk-radio hosts banter about products -- the familiar voice updating traffic or ranting about Congress one minute and chatting up a weight-loss supplement the next.

You can appreciate the uphill battle being waged to ensure ads get noticed, and yet still find these intrusions annoying -- whether it's fusing products and programs or listening to Howard Stern prattle on about them. Such practices also raise legitimate questions about diminishing credibility and trust. Norm Zareski of Palos Verdes Estates, for one, wonders if AM talk hosts like KABC's Al Rantel or KFI's Bill Handel worry about their integrity or "think their listener base is stupid enough to really believe they use all the stuff they claim to use."

Nevertheless, the drip, drip, drip of advertising into programs continues, suggesting that newspapers are missing out by failing to board the endorsement bandwagon. As a result, I'm pleased to note that while Zareski conveyed his thoughts via an e-mail, he could have just as easily sent a lovely Hallmark card, assuming he chose to send the very best. Whatever the conduit, having a reader express such views so eloquently was a welcome sight -- especially because I see so much better now, thanks to Lasik eye surgery.

If other viewers object, it hasn't shown up in the ratings, as shows like "American Idol" and "Survivor" feature elaborate tie-ins but still enjoy strong viewership. Indeed, after the May sweeps, NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker noted that the huge ratings generated by "Idol" prove that when it comes to reaching a mass audience, "nothing works like the network pipes" -- which reminds me how happy I am with my new copper re-piping, from Arnola Plumbing.

Then again, Zucker recently stated that NBC was implementing a management overhaul because the network is "in a position of strength." He isn't the only executive prone to say things that are sometimes hard to swallow, which may be why I take Natren's products, whose "Healthy Trinity" supplement helps my digestion, even when I'm being fed a bill of goods.

To be fair, NBC still finished first among key demographics for the TV season, putting them in a better position than ABC, whose steep decline televising the just-ended NBA playoffs brings to mind the percentage you can shave off car insurance bills thanks to the Auto Insurance Specialists.

Some will argue that wanton commercialism pales next to other media issues and excesses, from concentration of ownership to the sexuality and coarse language fouling the airwaves -- much the way odors can foul your house, come to think of it, which is why you need a Living Air purifier.

Yet beyond the mere nuisance factor, blending ads into content risks further undermining what faith the audience has left in its media. The ultimate goal, after all, is to pull a fast one -- to squeeze ads into shows in a manner that makes them both subtle and unavoidable.

The benefits to marketers are obvious, but the negatives are too often overlooked. Should we suspect that opinions about the economy are expressed not out of conviction but because they dovetail with the home-remodeling ad to follow? Should we assume the cool TV people whose style we admire are outfitted head to toe by paying sponsors, making them considerably less cool? Is Eminem still a rebel if his videos are tailored by the Gap and furnished by IKEA?

No wonder they call seemingly minor breaches in editorial independence a "slippery slope." Because once you begin venturing down this path, it's hard to stop -- even in a new pair of Nikes that make you feel like you're walking on air.

Arledge's insight

Los Angeles Times Articles