Tuesday, March 15, 2011

"The Turn"

“The Turn”

It was Friday Night. “Show Night” for Major Dad. The studio audience was filing in. There was excitement in the air. The painstaking script preparation had taken weeks, rehearsals an even more intense five days.

It would all pay off tonight.

And it would be worth it. Because we cared. More than anything, we wanted the show to be good. Everything else came a distant second to that passionately embraced objective.

The show mattered. It didn’t need to be verbalized. We felt it in our bones.

I am standing on the stage floor, pretending that I don’t want to be noticed. The Universal Studios President of Television, a smart and decent man, approaches. The look on his face says he is not coming over to tell me what a good job I’m doing. For a man in his position, he seems uncomfortable, and somewhat embarrassed.

“I want to ask you something,” he begins. “And don’t feel obligated to say, “Yes.”

“Okay,” having been offered the alternative, “No.”

The man chuckles semi-sincerely, then forges ahead, as I suspect he’d been instructed by higher-ups to do.

“How would you feel,” he continues tentatively, “if, at some point, while the show is on the air, the ‘Energizer Bunny’ flashes across the screen?”

My response is instantaneous.

“What?” (Read “What?” with a mixture of surprise, confusion and dismay, or if that’s too hard, surprise with a grimace, or if you can’t manage that, just the grimace.)

“They want to try something new,” he explains. “Audiences are switching away during commercial breaks. So they want to inject the commercials directly into the show.”

I call that “The Turn.”

Now I’m not an idiot. I was always aware that the programs were candy, intended to attract audience eyeballs who would then be on hand to sample the commercials. That’s how commercial rates are determined, on the basis of how many eyeballs the show delivers to the commercials, or more specifically, how many people, which is “number of eyeballs divided by two.”

Up till “The Turn”, the illusion was maintained that there was an actual respect for the show’s sancrosancticity. There was the show, and there were the commercials and, excluding the singular exception of the old Jack Benny Program where the commercials were woven seamlessly and humorously into body of the episode, the two remained fire-walledly distinct.

Now, while the actors were using every technique they could muster to entice the viewer into surrendering to the scrupulously crafted storyline, it was proposed that the “Energizer Bunny” go scooting across the screen.

The gloves were now off. A big change was a ’comin’.

It started with shortening the shows. When I broke in, a half-hour comedy ran twenty-six minutes, with four minutes for commercials. When I was done, they were down to twenty minutes and change, with almost nine minutes for commercials. That’s right, folks. Quietly, over two or so decades, the “commercial breaks” time percentage had more than doubled.

When people say shows like Taxi had more depth and texture than shows today, time-shrinkage is primarily the reason why. Longer shows, more depth and texture. Shorter shows, less depth and texture. And eleven-second theme songs.

Increasing the advertising minutes, however, didn’t really do the trick. The audience simply switched away from the commercials for twice as long. To combat this strategy, it was necessary to proceed to “Plan B.”

Hello, “Product Placement.”

For the television business, this was a total one-eighty. Before “The Turn”, writers were forbidden from mentioning the names of products, for fear of a conflict with the show’s actual sponsors, who would purchase airtime later, so no one had any idea who they were going to be.

As a result, set decorators were required to duplicate the graphics on well-known breakfast cereal boxes, while being prohibited from using the cereal’s actual name. This led to identical-looking “near miss” names on the cereal boxes, like “Rice Flisbies” and “Quarker Oats.”

After “The Turn”, sponsors paid substantial sums to have their products inserted into the shows, the more popular the show, the more money the “product placers” were required to pay.

Now, usually, the products appeared unmentioned, but sometimes, as in the “Junior Mints” product placement in Seinfeld, they were an integral part of the storyline. (Kramer was watching an operation from an overhead gallery while munching “Junior Mints” when one of the mints eluded his mouth, dropping into the clamped-open body cavity below.)

In was while watching Seinfeld that I noticed an even more surprising turn of events. Apparently, a “mention” on Seinfeld was so desirable, the sponsors didn’t object to having their products brutally disparaged.

Can you imagine the phone call setting up that arrangement?

“Hello, ‘Cotton Dockers’?’ I’m calling from the Seinfeld show, and we were wondering if you would mind if we mentioned ‘Cotton Dockers’ on our program, and said that anyone who thought that the ‘Cotton Dockers’ commercials were clever was an idiot.”

“No problem. Now how much would you charge us for that?”

Something like that must have occurred. Because that’s exactly what they did.

They also did this:

“Hello? Is this the producer of The English Patient? Yes, I’m calling from Seinfeld, and we’d like to know if it would be okay with you if we trashed your movie on the air?”

“Trash it in what way?”

“You know, having one of our characters say that The English Patient is excruciatingly boring, and maybe that it’s the worst movie they have ever seen in their lives.”

“You want to decimate our movie on Seinfeld? What can I tell you? We are deeply honored.”

“Great. We’ll send you the bill.”

(I’ll be honest with ya. If I’d been the producer of The English Patient, I’d have probably said “No.”)

It was then a small step from “product placement” to placing advertising – pop up’s, billboards, animated bunnies – right into the show, an early proposal of which I had personally witnessed on that Major Dad show night. How did I respond? I do what I do best. I passed the buck.

I pointed to Major Dad’s star, Gerald McRaney, standing imposingly on stage in his Marine uniform, and I said to the Universal Studios President of Television,

“Ask Mr. McRaney if it’s okay to put a bunny in the show. If it’s okay with him, it’s okay with me.”

The Studio President smiled knowingly, then wisely retreated to his seat.

But in time, he and his “exploit every ‘’Profit Center’” ilk would return.

And when they did, television as we knew it would never be the same.


Ger Apeldoorn said...

I believe the shortening of tv shows is more responsible than anything for the decline of their popularity. Not only does it rob the stories of their depth, it also means you get less entertainment for the time spent en it is harder than ever to get involved. I tried to watch Criminal Minds in the US once and it just didn't work. ANything I though I understood what was going on another block of commercials started. As a comic strip fan I point to the fate of the newspaper strip. Sure everyone still believes they could be great and they could be what sells a paper... but they have been downsized for so many years that their impact has dwindles to nothing, thus paving the way for their removal. The only thing there remains room for on tv and in the papers is the constant reflection on the NOW, the news that has been turned into gossip. All the rest can go to the internet.

Anonymous said...

I'm an American living in Korea and we get a lot of hour-long US shows on cable here, but the shows are presented the same way Korean shows are presented: In a block with no commercials. Commercials come in a ten-minute block before and after the program. (Occasionally there is a one- or two-minute break in the show for commercials, but usually the programs are commercial free.) Recently shows have begun to use product placement, but they put a disclaimer on the screen to that effect before a show begins.

What's to stop US networks from adopting this system?

MTW in Seoul