VIEWPOINT;A RATINGS ROLE FOR ADVERTISERS;BATTER UP

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A long about 2007, most American homes will have a TV with a V-chip so parents can block out violent or racy programs they don't want their children to watch. The government's schedule calls for all sets manufactured in 1997 and thereafter to contain the V-chip. But the industry estimates it will be a decade before most non-V's are traded in for newer sets.

Meanwhile, programmers and broadcasters have agreed to come up with a system to guide parents in the use of V-chips-a program rating system-by next January. But what role should advertisers take in fashioning this system? We urge them to get involved, even offering the current guidelines they use in deciding what programs to buy.

Some critics may see base motives in any attempts by advertisers to influence programming. But if the system is such that only TV pap avoids a scarlet letter, then advertisers will feel public pressure to back away from a lot of popular shows. Ratings remain a core value in an advertiser's buying decision.

Advertisers also can pressure the industry to see that an "adult" rating does not become a license for broadcasters to compete with cable in skin and sin programming. It happened in the movie industry, where many producers expecting an R make sure patrons get a full load of sex and violence. If it happens in TV, advertisers will lose out.

The new program ratings system will get enormous publicity, even though a V-chip world is a few years off. And advertisers will be identified with these shows-good or bad. So now is the time for them to reach out to the people who will create the system and help design one that doesn't unfairly brand programming for grownups.

Spring is around the corner and with it the 127th Major League Baseball season. But we'll wager many Americans aren't singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." The question is: Why not?

It seems like there's a lot going for the American Pastime, despite unresolved labor disputes and lingering ill-will from the strike-shortened 125th season in 1994. The sport has some momentum, a byproduct of the excitement that last season's edge-of-your-seat playoffs generated among fans and advertisers, most of it courtesy of the Seattle Mariners, perennial losers turned Cardiac Kids.

Fox Sports will pump life into MLB this year, as it did for the National Football League and the National Hockey League, with 160 different promotional spots. Lowe & Partners/SMS, MLB's new advertising agency, will launch its "What a Game" ad campaign around March 31. ESPN will run promos themed: "It's Baseball. And You're An American." And there's Nike, which has MLB's most marketable personality, the Mariners' Ken Griffey, Jr., running for president in a hilarious, big-budget campaign from Wieden & Kennedy. Yet we're a little wary.

While it's expected that Sports Marketing and Television International, a subsidiary of The Marquee Group, will handle sponsorship for MLB this season, the league still lacks a visible marketing leader and long-term strategy. This isn't very reassuring for marketers, who seem ready to get on the baseball bandwagon if Major League Baseball could just get its act together. As it is, MLB is scrambling to re-sign a few key 1995 sponsors and is seemingly content to let others lead the way in promoting its product, while slowly, surely building a marketing team and strategy that will be ready to go...next season.

Given the mercurial and byzantine ways of MLB owners, we'll believe in the "rebirth of baseball" when we see it.

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