TIME TO TALK ABOUT TALK TV

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When a single dog died during Alaska's Iditerod dogsled race last year, the Humane Society objected, pet-loving groups protested and major sponsors of the event ducked for cover.

Earlier this month, a murder was blamed by authorities on a confrontational TV talk show episode. (A guest on the "Jenny Jones" show afterwards allegedly killed a man who announced on the same show that he had a "crush" on him.) No reports yet of sponsors backing away from the controversial talk shows.

What's the difference here? It's that no organized pressure has been applied to the talk shows or their sponsors. How can marketers claim on the one hand that they have strict rules of propriety for prime time shows (thus avoiding envelope-pushers like "NYPD Blue") yet continue to put their dollars into anything during daytime that draws an audience?

Do young women and kids-who comprise most of the daytime audience-not deserve the advertisers' watchful supervision? The answer is that advertisers are not acting on behalf of their audiences, they are simply responding to pressure groups.

So, with no organized group yet mounting a serious challenge to daytime TV sleaze, advertisers-including some of our nation's most prestigious companies-continue to back programs that bid for audiences by playing with the deep emotions of their guests.

These advertisers seem to feel no need to assume responsibility for the programming they make possible-so long, at any rate, as they don't need to worry that some consumers will refuse to buy their products in protest. Self-interest, however, argues for a much more active role here. Daytime talk shows provide real value by attracting audiences advertisers want to reach, so why should advertisers watch quietly while unchecked sensationalism turns this medium into an embarrassing circus.

Thus far, advertisers haven't been drawn into the debate about the direction of these mostly syndicated offerings. In the future, they stand to be in the middle of the uproar.

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