Network Not Funny

ABC Celebrates Cerebral-Free TV

ABC got a lot of flak this summer for its cynical ad campaign insisting that TV's guilty pleasures be indulged nonstop. Now in its "most aggressive fall launch ever," the third-place network, whether out of daring or desperation, is still hitting away at the "pundits, moralists and self-righteous, self-appointed preservers of our culture [who] have told us that television is bad."

Loosely called "TV is Good," the first phase of the campaign produced TV and print ads in a flat, underachieving black typeface on a yellow background with nuggets of raffish wisdom: "8 hours a day, that's all we ask." "You can talk to your wife anytime." "It's a beautiful day, what are you doing outside?" "Hobbies, Schmobbies." Each quip was followed by the ABC logo, which served as the jolting punchline. But ABC apparently lost its nerve in going all the Know-Nothing way and withdrew an earlier line: "Books are overrated."

The ad focus has shifted now to promoting specific shows, but the "TV is Good" message--and aren't we bad for saying it!--still bleats on. Most strikingly, there's ABC sitcomer Drew Carey, holding up a small reproduction of the Mona Lisa near a huge TV set beaming the ABC logo. "Which would you rather look at--this or this?" he asks, pointing to each. As he tosses da Vinci's masterpiece carelessly over his shoulder, he says cheekily, "I thought so." I always thought, Drew Carey is overrated.

More succinctly, another new spot dwells on a cow in a pasture doing nothing; then the black-on-yellow words come on: "TV. What would you watch without it?" Yeah, yeah, stacking the deck with boring objects (previous spots featured fly zappers and Jell-O) is supposed to be part of the humor, though it was so ironic I forgot to sneer. But underneath the hilarity, the ads turn on the presumption that no one has the imagination to look at or think of anything other than the sexy loud flashing objects a "hip" media places before their eyes.

The lack of anything going on in one's head is bolstered by ABC's frequent references to brains: "Don't worry, you've got billions of brain cells," went one summer ad, while another stated, "Scientists say we use 10% of our brain. That's way too much." (TV as a stand-in for the human brain is not an uncommon come-on: "You only use 11% of its potential," a headline reads under a drawing of a brain in a magazine ad for DSS satellite dishes; then under a TV set: "Ditto.") The brainlessness required for watching most TV is no pained admission on ABC's part, but a sloshed frat-boy point of pride: "Let us celebrate our cerebral-free non-activity," as an ABC ad in TV Guide says archly.

Why stop at the human brain? In one of the latest commercials, a bunch of beefy football players kneel down in a circle, but instead of joining in a pregame prayer, they sing unto Disney, "When You Wish Upon a Star." We're supposed to be so amused by the old juxtaposition of brutes with hearts that we don't notice how the Disney corporation (which is ABC's parent, of course) is replacing God.

So if TV is bigger than God, art, and brains, where does that leave ABC? Sure, it's all supposed to be "over the top" (which is actually the name of a new ABC sitcom), but over-the-top humor doesn't quite work when tops were long ago blown away and the unthinkably ridiculous is already true. Is ABC saying something really, really bad, or is it just being brutally honest?

Clearly, the network is aiming for a younger, more happening audience (an ad for PrimeTime Live announces, "Sam and Diane are ready to rock"). And for anybody willing to believe that they're defying the antipleasure elitists by slathering themselves in cathode rays and shouting, "Hell yes, I'm going to take it even more!"

Perhaps this is how to rent an identity. Do a lot of research, pinpoint what people want, have an ad agency design you a costume so you can be that thing. When ABC and its agency, TBWA Chiat/Day, discovered that "less than 10% of Americans can name any network tagline" (such as CBS's "Welcome Home" or NBC's "Must See TV"), and that "over 90% of Americans answer the question, ëHow do you spend your leisure time?' with 'To recuperate from working'--presto, came ABC's fresh new persona, fashioned completely to give viewers permission to not feel guilty for vegging out in front of the TV.

Which is what the average household does for more than seven hours a day. Clever lines about brain cells and beautiful days aside, we watch not just to recuperate but to deaden and stupefy ourselves. In criticizing TV, I can already hear its defenders roaring back that there's great, fascinating, brilliant stuff on it. And that's absolutely true. (Basically, for me, it's Larry Sanders, Dr. Katz: Professional Therapist, The Simpsons, The Tick, Seinfeld, and Prime Suspect--whoops, not too much on the nets or ABC, though Spin City is enjoyable.) But criticizing TV is not primarily about criticizing the shows. The sum is number than the parts.

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