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The yellow backgrounds are ingeniously striking. The wry (or is it sly?) attitude is refreshing. Some of the jokes are borderline hilarious.

"Oh sure it's costing us money," says one spot featuring 30 seconds of amateur hula dancing against a filmed Polynesian backdrop. "But if money were all we were interested in, we wouldn't be in the entertainment industry, now would we?"

Irony from network television. Imagine it.

But the very best thing about"TV is Good"-ABC's new image campaign from TBWA Chiat/Day-is what it isn't.

It isn't "Catch the Excitement!" Or "Our Family to yours!" Or "Please Watch. We Beg You!"-or whatever empty slogan might have otherwise graced the fall season. And that is a miracle, because such puffery isn't just an example of the Big 3 networks' marketing problems; it's a microcosm of them.

These disposable fall umbrellas exist in all their insipid glory precisely because they must unify whole broadcast schedules with no actual unifying element. Hence the ecstatic, generic expressions of putative excitement that mean the same thing to everybody by meaning nothing to anybody.

From an advertising point of view, the networks have always been prisoners of their own indistinguishable variety.

So credit ABC for breaking the mold ("ABC. We Broke the Mold!") with a campaign that, for the first time in its genre, has both a point and a point of view.

In one spot, nothing but a jiggling Jell-O ring, until the title card: "TV. What would you watch without it?"

In another: shots of supremely cultured foreign cultures doing such highbrow stuff as reading and going to the ballet, intercut with a family of American couch potatoes.

"Research indicates Americans watch a lot of TV," the voice-over says. "More TV than the French. More than the Chinese. More than the Russians and more than the Japanese. In fact, Americans watch more TV than all these people combined. Research also shows that Americans are the richest, most innovative, most productive people on the planet. Coincidence? We don't think so."


Sure, this itself is a sort of generic advertising; the medium it so archly celebrates is for sale on the competition's networks, as well. But consider, for example, Nike. It has become a juggernaut talking about the transcendence of sport. Utterly generic, and yet, through its style and pre-emptive appropriation of the sporting ethic, the meaning of sport has merged with Nike's own.

The much bigger structural problem gets back to the character of Big 3-ness, and the philosophy (to paraphrase the old TV-industry saw) that people don't watch brands, they watch programs. It's not just that "Second Noah" was pathetic and "Nothing Sacred" will be, too. It's that even the cleverest, most cultivated brand personality is irrelevant when success is achieved by the random casting about for hit shows. For ABC to truly become a brand, in the way that Lifetime and the Fox network are brands, it must define a broadcast mission, create programming expectations and meet them.

This, of course-even for a struggling network with relatively little to lose-would require vision, commitment and, above all, courage. Alas, ABC is in the entertainment industry, and therefore it is too . . .

. . . yellow.

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