The cause of decency -- specifically, finding limits to what the entertainment world will do for the sake of ratings -- needs an advocate wherever it can be found. But it is a bit strange to see it coming from inside CBS, from "60 Minutes."
The other day, reporter Lesley Stahl was profiling the France family that operates the massive sports business of NASCAR racing, and she was outraged. Her primary moral objection was any lack of limits to who sponsors the cars. "A NASCAR race is a constant blur of corporate logos, hawking everything from beer to booze, soldiers to sex."
Stahl took it to chief executive Brian France. "You are unabashed in the hucksterism category," she charged. "Unabashed. Is there any company you would turn down? When France tried to respond that "Well, sure, I mean, we have limits," Stahl interjected. "You do? Could've fooled me ... What are your limits?" France said he wouldn't promote "things that would be distasteful." Stahl shot back: "You do Viagra, you do liquor ... Do you do Victoria's Secret?" France replied: "Not yet."
Here's where Stahl is right. Ads for Viagra or their competitors are distasteful on television. Until recently, ads for liquor were banned on television because they were seen as bad influences on children; ads for beer are plentiful and can certainly be distasteful, as in 2003's Miller Lite catfight between hot women in bikinis, wrestling in wet cement. Ads for negligees and bras have become evermore suggestive and, thus, distasteful for family television. I'm not sure what's distasteful about a car promoting the U.S. Army, but Stahl is putting that in the same category.
But here's where Stahl also looks rather ridiculous, never mind hypocritical. Stahl's employer CBS accepts Army ads. CBS runs ads for beer all the way through its weekend college and pro football games. CBS would run ads for liquor if they were more widely accepted, and surely will when they do. CBS runs bra ads -- and has broadcast an entire sleazy hour of the "Victoria's Secret Fashion Show," an hour-long product placement full of negligee shots. What limits does CBS have? And are those limits any firmer than NASCAR's?
As for the "hucksterism" charge, how would Stahl explain the shameless product placement we're now seeing television, and how would she respond to the fact that a top evangelist for that creeping commercialism is … her boss? As CBS President Les Moonves proudly told Broadcasting & Cable magazine, "We're making more and more of those deals: the kind of cars they drive in 'CSI'; the kind of orange juice they drink in 'Two and a Half Men.'" Yikes.
CBS's "Survivor" series regularly plants plugs for Reebok, Doritos, Mountain Dew and other goodies in its shows. The lowly criminalists on "CSI: Miami" drive $55,000 Hummers. Just weeks ago, Mediaweek reported CBS would digitally imbed the logo of the new Chevrolet Impala in five of the network's prime time shows during premiere week of its new fall schedule, and would give away one car each night of the promotion. So why is CBS getting in a huff about automotive hucksterism?
Stahl returned to the subject when she noted France's moves with sponsors, that he dropped Big Tobacco, and that as a result the Winston Cup became the Nextel cup in a massive deal. Then he allowed hard-liquor companies to sponsor cars. Stahl pressed again with that give-me-a-break tone: "You promote this sport as family values. You are sponsored by things that are just not wholesome. I mean, for years it was cigarettes. I mean, come on. Now it's liquor."
But it gets stranger still. Watching a CBS "60 Minutes" show extolling the virtues of wholesome messages and family values looks truly odd when you catch the programming promos for CBS jammed into that very same "60 Minutes" hour. Right after Stahl's NASCAR segment, CBS plugged the next show on the schedule, a gruesome episode of "Cold Case" that will "haunt" you about a murder after a horror movie. After Andy Rooney's commentary, CBS aired a gross-out promo for "NCIS," touting a "text message from the grave," head shots of a corpse, followed by examiners pulling fingers off the corpse. These promos were featured on a show airing at 7 p.m. Eastern and Pacific, 6 p.m. Central time.
By all means, let's have CBS touting the need for wholesome television and family-values programming. But it ought to start with CBS's own on-air product. Until CBS cleans its own house it has no right to lecture others about their TV offenses.