We all know the song now: With audiences splintering and programming costs rising, the old network TV economic model is no longer viable. So networks need new sources of revenue.
Even at the cost, apparently, of credibility, integrity and dignity.
CBS isn't the first to do this. On ABC's Web site, "General Hospital" fans can order their "very own Nurses Ball T-shirt now!" for just $19.95. And an ambitious new sales tie-in links the WB's "Dawson's Creek" and apparel marketer American Eagle Outfitters. But when most media companies erase the line between content and advertising, they do it quietly to avoid notice. They don't boast about it as the Tiffany network did with the "Guiding Light" promotion. Of course, this is the same CBS that once weaved white diamonds into the plots of several sitcoms to promote Elizabeth Taylor's perfume of the same name. So it's not the first time it has sacrificed a commitment to provide viewers with quality entertainment to make a buck.
Some believe gimmicks like this are harmless if they are confined to entertainment programs and don't cross the line to news. That's not true. CBS made a decision to sell products directly to viewers. It then instructed the soap's writers to weave the product directly into the plot in a way that will sell lots of $29.95 baubles. This corrupts the whole creative process; instead of the writers' goal being to entertain viewers, the goal is to make more money for the network.
A different trend is already having the same negative impact on the quality of network programming. Networks now own stakes in just about every show they air, so scheduling decisions are made based not on the quality of content but its upside potential.
Look, it's one thing if the network sells shirts and other doodads branded with a show's name. It's another thing entirely to flip that premise around and build content around sales potential. Viewers aren't idiots. If they want to buy trinkets, they tune to QVC. If they want to be entertained, they should trust a sitcom or soap opera to at least make an attempt to entertain them.
Of course, soap operas, The New York Times says, are a dying breed. So to make the most money, CBS should migrate its experiment to prime time, sports and other dayparts. Here's an idea for the new season, gratis: On "Everybody Loves Raymond," the whole family goes to the mall for two wacky, fun-filled episodes to buy fall wardrobes for mom and dad and back-to-school supplies for the kids. And, get this, everything they buy you can buy on the CBS Web site, from pencils to jackets!!!
Sounds like an awful idea, doesn't it? That's because it is an awful idea. Then again, it's no worse than building storylines around a mysterious bracelet and then selling copies to viewers.
Once this idea moves to other dayparts, news doesn't need to stay off-limits, does it? Asked if viewers would ever be able to buy Dan Rather flak jackets, CBS President Les Moonves said he "highly doubt[ed]" it. Notice he didn't say definitively that it won't happen. Because, hey, who knows? If there's a chance to make an extra buck, the networks are willing to explore it.
The dangers of blurring the line and destroying what remains of consumers' trust in media are growing daily. It happens in magazine publishing and with alarming regularity on the Web. Now it's network TV. The fundamental media advertising model is at risk. The way it's supposed to work is quality content attracts an audience and advertisers tap that relationship. When the first goal is not to serve the audience but to make money, the bond is broken and everybody loses: consumers, media companies and advertisers.