Advertisers into the standards breach

Posted: Jun 28, 2002 12:00 AM
Certain matters once handled discreetly now are part of our ongoing cultural conversation. The extent to which that's good or bad depends on context. The obituary for Eppie Lederer -- a.k.a. Ann Landers -- in her home newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, notes that in the 1980s, a professor at Cornell published an analysis of how Landers' advice column had changed since its inception in 1955. According to the Tribune, the professor found that sexual issues were "virtually non-existent in the columns when [Landers] started," but they "came to dominate her letters, along with frank advice about masturbation, penile implants and homosexuality, topics editors would have axed if she'd mentioned them decades before." I don't doubt that some of Landers' sex-themed material scored awfully high on the TMI (Too Much Information) scale. But her audience was primarily parents. The most disturbing aspect of our raunch-plagued modern culture is its focus and effect on children. There's a world of difference. Television remains the single greatest influence on youngsters. Ironically, and sadly, what was true of Landers' changing standards is true of TV, which almost never dealt with the intimacies of sex in the mid-'50s but today is consumed by them. Throughout the '90s, it was broadcast television that made headlines as its traditional standards eroded. Now, a major standards shift is underway in basic cable (as opposed to premium or pay-per-view channels). Program content on broadcast television is subject to (toothless) FCC regulations; program content on basic cable is immune even to that. On the other hand, both broadcast TV and basic cable are advertiser-supported. In other words, if you're looking for that entity that might get basic cable to shape up, look not to the federal government, but rather to corporate America. Activist groups have made an effort in that regard. For example, numerous companies now have ceased advertising on FX's "The Shield," a new cop drama that is taking gratuitous foul language, violence and sexual material to all-time lows. Sadly, there are also plenty of companies that just don't want to know when it comes to the interaction of their ad dollars and crass television programming. Representatives for some of them recently talked to Mediaweek magazine. In choosing the shows on which it will advertise, Miller Brewing has "no guidelines in regard to [program] content. The networks have their own guidelines for what's appropriate." (Good idea -- trust the networks on questions of taste.) The Gap's TV ad-buying decisions involve only a show's "viewership," not its content. (If it sells, it's OK.) Best Buy provides the best corporate copout: "We don't even look at the show. We purchase blocks of time and look at the demo[graphics] -- we're not purchasing a TV program at all." This is intellectually dishonest, and Best Buy knows it. Without the advertisers' money, these shows would never run. They are responsible, period. This kind of behavior is discouraging, yet it is with advertisers that hope lies, given that many basic-cable networks seem committed to the raunchification of the culture. Comedy Central executive VP Bill Hilary pompously remarked to Mediaweek that "America wants to look realistically at life, wants to be challenged, wants to see something edgier, and definitely a larger number of advertisers are beginning to understand that the general public is willing to accept certain things." USA Network President Doug Herzog said, "I don't think there's anything wrong with sexy, and certainly the world doesn't. Anybody who wants to be contemporary has to keep up with the times." Those dastardly, dastardly contemporary times. The next basic-cable "innovation" may come from MTV. Entertainment Weekly reports that in January, James and Laurie Ryan of Washington, D.C., entered their Las Vegas hotel room and saw what appeared to be a bloody corpse. The Ryans then were kept from leaving the room by three persons, two of whom they took to be hotel security guards, the third a paramedic. The body was fake. The guards and the paramedic were actors. The gruesome scene was staged for the pilot episode of a prospective MTV show called "Harassment," which its producer has described as a "guerrilla 'Candid Camera.'" The Ryans have sued MTV, the producer and the hotel. Litigation aside, should "Harassment" run on MTV? That decision will be made by corporate America.