Duck Soup: Commercial Free?
I watched a TV news magazine program the other night and felt thoroughly used. Commercialism has moved into a higher orbit. Something like six ads ran back-to-back, then Bryant Gumbel was back on the air to talk about next week's show, then four more ads, and back to Bryant with a tease about the next segment, and a preview of some other show, then back to ads. I suddenly realized that I had watched almost fifteen minutes of uninterrupted sales pitches without even an embarrassed nod to news content. I won't watch that show again.Advertising appears to be a necessary evil in modern communications systems, though there are many who would argue with both of those characterizations. And, as a writer for radio and print, I am painfully aware that advertising pays the bills. I long ago realized that the newspapers that publish my work are constructed of bricks of advertising and that the news, features, opinion and reviews are little more than mortar troweled in to keep the bricks level. At best, the advertising department hopes my writing is good enough to drag readers from page eight to page twenty where the last few paragraphs draw their eyes toward the SEVEN DAY CRUISE, JUST $1499 ROUND TRIP FROM ANYWHERE!Even those writers lucky enough to be published in book form rely on advertising to move the product. Sans advertising it is entirely possible to write a brilliant novel or poetry collection that never covers the expense of a first edition.That said, we do experience gradations of commercialism. The Home Shopping Network is at one extreme where ads are the only content. At the other end of the broadcast spectrum sits public broadcasting which, in its ideal form, is commercial free. The argument for funding NPR, PBS, PRI and their regional and local clones, was that there are some ideas, entertainments and art forms that are too specialized to interest mass market advertisers, but too important for our culture to comfortably ignore.Like unicorns and elves, commercial free broadcasting is only a pleasant myth. From the beginning there have been commercial underwriters of public stations, who usually prefer to receive public credit for their largesse. So, at first, we heard a mellow deejay voice mentioning that, "This hour's programming was brought to you in part with funding from ABC Widgets in Cityville."Later that simple acknowledgment wasn't enough to lure sponsors, and it became, "This program is brought to you in part by ABC Widgets, Widget Maker for the Stars, with offices in Cityville, Villagetown and Urbancenter. Sold in hardwares everywhere."These days there is often another line tacked on announcing that "Next month ABC will sponsor a Wonder Widget Tour, on the web at www.ABCwonderwidget.com." The best that can be said is that public radio ads are usually delivered by one voice, and so we are spared the shouted idiocy and inane story lines cooked up for the pop/talk/country and rock stations.As an outsider, I'm not privy to details about the funding of WNCW or other public stations, but I have talked to underwriters who are very clear about their purpose. One shopkeeper I spoke with prefers classical music and calls this WNCW's eclectic music format "unlistenable," but underwrites it because, "It is my most productive advertising."Perhaps the relentless expansion of credits into ads, of ticket give-aways, and blurbs for venues and record companies are a necessary evil, essential to the continuation of public broadcasting. If it is the only way to keep this community and national treasure alive, so be it.However, I think it is time for public stations to drop the claim that their format is "commercial free." That assertion is transparently false to listeners and underwriters alike. Further, I think that if advertising is the new paradigm, it may be time to dump the pretense of membership drives. I know that public stations are very sensitive to this sort of criticism. During WNCW's Sound Investment, their spring fund raiser, a Duck Soup addressing this topic was cut from the evening broadcast. I guess my critique of advertising policy sliced uncomfortably close to the bone, and someone did not want it aired.At least Bryant Gumbel, for all of his plugging and puffery sandwiched between soft drink and auto and credit card campaigns, didn't ask me to pay to listen to ads.