Network Not Funny

ABC Celebrates Cerebral-Free TV

That may be another reason the "TV is Good" campaign doesn't yet seem to be working. The average household rating for ABC actually went down slightly from August '96 to August '97, from 6.8 to 6.5, according to Nielsen figures. ABC says it's unfair to judge the campaign's effectiveness until the new season gears up, starting this week. Still, Chiat/Day is now famous for the very funny, very creative Nissan commercials that haven't done a thing to bump up sales.

TV is just too rich, enormous, and complex for a singular, simple message about it to come off as anything but a bit suspect. We all know TV too intimately--its good, its bad, its constant harangue to buy products, celebrities, and its own formulas; the fear of turning it off, the bracing silence when you finally do. We know TV fever as well as TV fun the way convent-bred adolescents once knew the Church.

The ability to tell the flop-till-you-drop joke also depends on who's telling it. "If Comedy Central did the same thing, it could go over a lot better," says a young woman who disliked the ads so much she altered about 20 ABC posters, mostly in the East Village and Soho. To ABC's "Husband not funny?" she added, "Trust us, the sitcoms on ABC are even less funny." To "You can talk to your wife anytime," she asked, "So why don't you?" And to "8 hours a day is all we ask," she added, "12 hours at 28 cents an hour is what ABC's parents at Disney pay their workers in Haiti."

She wasn't the only one the ads drove to subversion. "The third time I went out to do it, I saw that half the ads in the Lower East Side had been defaced already"--and former defacements already repaired, apparently by ABC, she says. "It was an easy campaign to pick, because it was so horrible--it's that whole sort of bogus ironic tone that I find so irritating. Don't try to act like you're on my side."

That's part of the problem, at least for ABC: it's hard to put your finger on just what kind of humor it's trying to get over. The messages are too weighted and loaded to work as sharp irony. And it's not quite an anti-advertising ad campaign either, the kind that pokes fun at something resembling itself--a la the Sprite or Miller Beer "Dick" ads--because it straight-out promotes what it says it promotes.

If anything, the schtick is much more the old-style tongue-in-cheek adman elbowing your ribs, usually by so outrageously overstating something that we're supposed to be charmed. As ABC marketing vice president Alan Cohen explained in a press conference introducing the ads, when focus groups first saw them, "They said, 'Wow, this is funny. ABC is funny. They must have good comedies.' And that's exactly the connection that we wanted to make. So I'm not sure people are going to take it so literally and think this is evil." It's all about how TV "fits into [people's] lives, how it in fact was part of some family interaction that maybe they don't have at the dinner table," added Chiat/Day chairman Lee Clow. "So, we just thought if we could kind of be honest, maybe everybody else would kind of come along with a similar honest feeling."

I believe that at face value, that at some point ABC and Chiat/Day did indeed think so innocently about it. But the kind of humor they eventually used to market "honesty" is the ever more popular bad-boy breed that rides the stallion of political incorrectness--the catch-all excuse to attack things "good" for you, and/or things vaguely liberal. My, do we all want to be able to shout, "We're bad!" as our cornered little way to rebel against...what? The "establishment," which now licenses out methods to express the badness--like watching more TV?

In fact, ABC's new humor most closely resembles those Benson & Hedges ads that showed people forced to sit on the wings of airborne planes in order to smoke cigarettes with abandon. Even more, it's like that feisty attitude squared: the cult of nouveau cigar-smokers, folks who can't seem to truly express themselves--their pride in being assholes!--outside of a prefab symbol of defiant, ruddily successful individualism.

But ABC's programming is not as brazenly politically incorrect as its ads. On Princess Di's death, for instance, the network didn't refuse to join every other media outlet in the world in going for saturation bombing, Mother Teresa be damned. In some ways it went further than most, presenting the spectacle of Barbara Walters and Elton John drowning in each other's schmaltz.

Is TV bad? Is TV good? No, TV is glop.

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