TV Advertisers Ante Up To Fund Cleaner Scripts

BURBANK, Calif.-Eleven major TV advertisers have announced a plan to pay the WB Television network to produce more family-friendly programs.

Some industry observers aren't satisfied with the move, saying the advertisers who are pushing for good shows aren't also pulling out of the bad ones, in effect treating decency like a commodity.

But other observers say that's not such a bad thing.

“It affirms the moral potential of the market,” said Father Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute, a think tank in Grand Rapids, Mich., that promotes and defends free-market economic principles. “We live in a market economy and people who are operative in that economy can promote values that are positive. … [This shows that] we don't have to resort to bureaucrats or politics to do good for the society.”

Critics agree with Father Sirico that paying for good shows is a step in the right direction. What they're not so sure about are the advertisers' motives. They say advertisers aren't as interested in improving television's content as they are in making money.

One of these critics is Janet Parshall of the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C. “One disappointing aspect of the advertisers' effort is that decency is treated merely as another market niche,” she said in a statement issued to the Register. To bolster her point, Parshall quoted a senior vice president of the Association of National Advertisers who lamented, “Many of these (advertisers) plan to continue to advertise in edgy programming … because that's appropriate for a brand.”

But Brent Bozell, director of the Media Research Center, also in Washington, thinks it's unfair to assume that advertisers are hiding their hand on this one.

“You have to be somewhat sympathetic toward sponsors,” Bozell said. He said that historically there has been a mind-set in Hollywood that sponsors wanted the racier material to bring in young viewers, but the fact is “they [the sponsors] don't like the stuff.” Bozell added that “often times advertisers simply don't know what kinds of shows they're advertising on. They just look at the numbers.”

Coming Together

The latest chapter in the TV-and-advertisers saga started last spring, when advertisers and producers got together for their annual meeting to talk about commitments for the upcoming television season.

This year, Robert Wehling, Procter & Gamble's global marketing officer, decided it was time to say something about the deterioration of TV in recent years. So, in a meeting with WB Network Chief Executive Jamie Kellner, Wehling raised the issue. Kellner told Wehling to put his money where his mouth is, and Wehling agreed.

Wehling got together with executives from eleven other corporations, including AT&T, General Motors, Procter & Gamble, IBM, Johnson & Johnson and six others to come up with a strategy. Calling themselves the Forum for Family Friendly Programming, the advertisers decided they'd put up about $1 million among them to pay the WB Network to hire writers of family-friendly shows.

“This will allow us to increase by at least double the amount of scripts in the family-friendly area to look at,” said Brad Tyrell, WB's executive vice president for community relations. Tyrell said that left to its own devices, WB would look at a variety of scripts, without any particular incentive other than quality for signing family-friendly shows, but that this gives them added incentive.

“At the end of the day, our decision to run a particular show is formed on the basis of quality,” Kellner said, explaining that commissioning more family-friendly scripts increases the chances by 100% or 200% that this kind of program will make the cut. The new family-oriented scripts could be made into shows by the fall of 2000.

“The advertisers are giving us economic incentive and now we have to put something of quality on the air to reap their promise of support,” Tyrell said.

As for whether the advertisers were more concerned about making a good investment than bettering television, Father Sirico said this question presents a false dichotomy.

“Would we condemn a baker who produced quality bread at lower costs if we thought his motives were evil — he may be evil, but if the social effect is good, why be hostile?” Father Sirico. “Outside of the confessional it's impossible to determine the conscience of someone.”

“It's interesting that advertisers are initiating this,” Father Sirico added. “It's my hunch that the culture of Hollywood is very different from that of your average advertiser. I think the image of advertisers sitting around with their family at night and being offended by what's on television is an apt one.”

One official at Procter & Gamble confirmed Father Sirico's view.

“We saw a need for more choices for families and advertisers,” said Gretchen Briscoe, a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble.

“Based on our content guidelines, it was becoming more and more difficult to advertise on prime-time shows. There was excessive violence, gratuitous sex, drugs, and use of alcohol on most shows.” Prime time is 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.

She added that the project was motivated “by the fact that we need to be responsible advertisers. We need to support shows our consumers feel comfortable with.”

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