Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Tonight's Regularly Scheduled Program Will Not Be Seen...

Back when I was little, every once in a while, when Mom wasn’t looking, like when we went to the barbershop, Dad would buy me a Coke out of one of those chest-style machines, you know, the ones with the little glass bottles you turned in for deposit. It was a treat. Something fun. But don’t tell Mom.

I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas on DVD last night, and a funny thing happened: I thought about Dad and those little bottles of Coke. It seemed like a strange juxtaposition, until I thought a little more about it. And then I remembered why I would think about those times when Dad bought me a treat.

It’s getting harder these days to feel the holiday spirit on television. Gone are the days when the family gathered ‘round the Zenith to watch Charlie Brown turn Christmas into a problem, and see the Grinch’s heart grow three sizes that day. Oh sure, those specials still run… on a single channel on my 99 channel cable service. And the shows are so pot marked with commercials and promo inserts that cover half the screen – the technical term for these in the biz is “snipes,” because they’re supposed to jump in and out quickly. But they don’t really – that watching these beloved treasures can be more of a chore than a pleasure.

Of course, loading the Christmas specials with commercial content is nothing new. I dubbed down a broadcast of a 1974 favorite A Year Without a Santa Claus to DVD and edited out the breaks only to find the show’s total running time sans spots to be exactly 43 minutes. It’s possible the ABC Family Channel speeded up the show to make more room for ads, a common trick on many cable networks. (Ever wonder why the audio on certain shows keeps burbling like it’s under water? Digital speed adjustment.) And while it’s hard to believe, the corporate content used to be much more, shall we say, in your face. The original broadcasts of Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer were sponsored by GE, complete with Santa’s elves from the show singing the commercial. I’ll always remember the tall elf selling a GE percolator. These are the things little kids remember.

At one time most Christmas specials were single sponsor events – programs whose production was underwritten by a solitary commercial sponsor in order to create a warm holiday feeling towards said sponsor via the show they sponsored. The Gas Company – remember when there was only one? – brought you How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Director Chuck Jones recalled the experience of working under a sponsor somewhat challenging, but overall a far more positive experience than dealing directly with a television network. In other words, if one of creative talents behind Bugs Bunny said “I want the animation to look good,” CBS would say, “We don’t care. Just knock it out as cheap as possible.” But if a corporate sponsor – the client! – said “We want it good,” the network kissed the Gas Company’s ass. The Gas Company put up the money for the production. They could pay for it to look like Fantasia if they wanted to.

Single sponsorship is hard to find these days. Anything aimed at kids falls under the FCC’s Children’s Television Act: a lawyer’s briar patch of arcane rules broadcasters must follow in order to prevent the poisoning of young minds when they’re not playing Grand Theft Auto on the PS-3. Basically stated, the CTA stops characters in the show from turning to the camera and saying, “Hey kids, buy my crap!” No more of Santa’s elves selling coffee pots during “Rudolph.” (Of course, the CTA does nothing about toy-based productions i.e.: Pokemon, or the creeping up of the commercial unit count on Nickelodeon. But that’s another story.)

The CTA not withstanding, sponsors find children’s television a corporate relations minefield. The original sponsor of A Charlie Brown Christmas was Coca-Cola, “and your friendly neighborhood Coca-Cola bottler.” It just wasn’t Christmas until I head Vince Guaraldi and “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.” In later years McDonald’s also sponsored Peanuts specials. Nowadays these companies wouldn’t dare sponsor a children’s show for fear of being targeted as purveyors of junk food to kids.

True, children need a balanced diet. And true, kids have more choices to watch whatever whenever. I’ll admit that as a child I dreamed of a day when we had a 24-hour cartoon channel. Now we do, and it’s like having a Milky Way bar for breakfast. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all.

I guess the difference back in pre-Nick days, back when everybody had 3 channels and a PBS, maybe in color, was that a Christmas Special was just that. Special. Like the times when Dad bought me a Coke. A treat.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The TV Commercial Hall of Shame

You've heard of Black Friday - the biggest shopping day of the year. In broadcasting starting today and going through the weekend, we celebrate - we hope - the biggest advertising buying period of the year.

Of course, if you were paying attention, you noticed the push began before Charlie Brown could get home from trick or treat with his bag of rocks. The cell phone companies want you to be able to give a working phone preferably on Christmas Eve, so your loved one can immediately make calls to friends and family Christmas morning. Apple wants those I-Phones moving NOW! And let's face it, procrastinating only leads to trouble. Who wants to be trying to find a gift on Christmas Eve at the Dollar General... again?

These commercials are bright, sharp, funny, and generally speaking get the message across. They were planned well in advance from a long-term marketing plan, tested with focus groups, and basically critiqued by professionals paid to give honest answers before anything gets on the air.

But those are the big national network-level ad buys. What about the local guys - your local furniture store trying to convince you that what Dad really wants for Christmas is a recliner done up in Ohio State Buckeyes colors. (Actually, that's not a bad idea. It's the Michigan fans who have a horrible color scheme to live with.) Local retailers, lacking the budget and the time for marketing, usually end up slapping something together at a local TV station just hours before their spot run starts. In fact, somebody's probably recording one right now.

These spots come in one of a handful of categories I will call The Local TV Commercial Hall of Shame. They are as follows:

The Lidsville Shot - Sometime back around 1973 somebody came up with the bright idea of using this new technology called Chroma-Key in local commercials. That person is now suffering in a cool corner of Hell for creating this abomination to humanity. The spot works like this: The ego-driven client stands in front of the very same lurid-green wall used by the weather guy in the news, and reads from the prompter while the director replaces the green wall electronically with video of the store shot earlier that day. The resulting composite shot gives us the impression that this guy likes to see himself on TV more than he wants us to see his store. Even now our station is running an ad showing somebody standing in what I call the "no floor" chroma-key shot. This is where a green curtain extends to the floor where the client is standing. In the resulting shot the client appears to be floating over the background video. Mr. Client may be thinking "This'll bring 'em in," but all I'm thinking of is Charles Nelson Riley flying in a crushed top hat.

The Cheaper By The Dozen Shot - "If they like looking at me in the Chroma-Key Shot," Mr. Ego Client thinks, "then they'll love looking at my entire family, all six kids, the dog, beside the Christmas tree, next to a roaring fire in the fireplace. Nobody's ever done that before! I'm a frickin' genius!" No. You're frickin' annoying. Because Mr. Ego can't say his lines, the shot you see on the air is probably something like take 29. By now the kids would rather be getting a cavity filled than to have to stand there blinking into those hot lights while wearing an itchy sweater with a tie. And it shows. The wife wants to be on TV about as much as she wanted to have six kids, but she didn't have any say in that decision, either.

The Pebbles and Bam-Bam Shot - There are 5 year-olds who can play Mozart on a grand piano, and they are not on TV - primarily because the parents don't want to exploit the child like a circus freak. Many local advertisers would call that a missed opportunity. I'm dead serious. They know what Little Ricky did for I Love Lucy, and by golly their kids can do the same for Ralph's Plumbing and Heating. And so, we get the money shot tagged on the end of the commercial. There sit Pebbles and Bam-Bam reciting their line, in the unintelligible mush that any first-grade teacher is all too familiar with. It takes a week of practice to get a chorus to sing Silver Bells with any understandable diction. What makes Mr. Ego Client think his no-talent spawn can deliver his tag line and bring me into the store? It might've worked in 1953, but even Little Ricky will tell you if you want to distribute your children electronically, log on to YouTube.

The Bad CG Shot - Actually, a number of national agencies are guilty of this one, as well. The law firm with the CG tiger is just passable, but then again these guys are the Wal-Mart of law firms. Some TV stations have just enough computer power to make something that looks like an imitation of those Rankin-Bass holiday specials. In order for those to work it takes time, and that's usually the one thing these guys don't have. The client wants it on the air yesterday, so the CG figures move without flow and only the merest hint at lip sync. At least it's eye catching.

And speaking of national ad agencies, they're guilty of some major infractions I'd like to see punishable by law.

Chevy's "Our Country" Campaign - This one raised some hackles when it first appeared a year ago, mainly due to it's hardly subtle message, "Remember 9-11, buy a Chevy." They've eliminated the politics, but music is still annoying. The one with the boys playing street football in, what I'm led to think, the 1930's is risible. I'm sure GM paid a bundle for John Cougar's song, but it's time to put it to rest. Please.

KFC Using "Sweet Home Alabama" - Am I the only person who thinks that song celebrates being an ignorant redneck? Lose it, now!

Anybody Using "Time Is On My Side" - Don't blame Mick and the boys for selling this one all over the place. Somebody else wrote the song, and apparently they, or the benefactors, need a touch. It's been used in everything from my local cable TV company to something about saving for college. Stop it. Just stop it.

Anybody trying to sing like Norah Jones - There's only one Norah Jones. Thank god.

NASCAR Drivers Stunt Driving - We have enough morons with a "3" on their back windows roaring through parking lots and changing lanes on a whim. Don't encourage them. Whether it's on suburban streets or through a gas station, showing NASCAR drivers (or rather leading us to believe it's them) driving like crazed idiots is wholly irresponsible. Ask most professional drivers whether you should drive anything like what is regularly shown on TV, and they will emphatically say, "No." They drive the speed limit and keep a clear distance from anything else on the road. In fact, most pro drivers will tell you they feel safer on a race track than on a public street. On the track they are surrounded by fellow racers. Out on the interstate they are surrounded by morons with a "3" on their back windows.

So, during this holliday weekend, when you're watching TV remember these golden gems. And when you see cute kids in an obvious chroma-key shot singing "Time Is On My Side" like Norah Jones with a cold, just remember... you have the remote.