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.

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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