Taking a leaf from the successful NBC playbook, the increasingly golden Eye Network has begun shooting what The New York Times calls "the most ambitious music-oriented miniseries to date." That musical entertainment, "Shake, Rattle and Roll," a fictional biopic of the rise of a rock band, has three aims: to be a ratings blowout, to attract the younger viewers who've proven so elusive to CBS and, most significantly, to provide a new revenue stream in the form of CD sales direct-marketed on the program.
For some reason, that mixture of entertainment and commercialism strikes some as crass. Even my esteemed superior, Scott Donaton-who, as you'll recall, edits a publication that defines this entire age in terms of advertising-has denounced the conjunction of entertainment and sales. "Desperate times call for desperate measures," he wrote in the space just below my grimacing face a few weeks back (AA, June 28), excoriating CBS for a similar project, the sale of jewelry worn by the characters on the soap "Guiding Light." This "ridiculous decision," Scott said, sacrificed the network's "credibility, integrity and dignity."
To which I can only respond: "It's here, it's dear, get used to it."
Where traditionalists like Scott see the diminution of mythically stalwart broadcasting brands, I see the development of an entirely new model of mediated amusement, one that might assure the networks' survival. The trick is to look at CBS' new ventures (and NBC's experiment in music programming and sales, "The '60s") not as variations on infomercials, but as early yet necessary steps in the direction of electronic commerce.
E-commerce? Product placements and toll-free phone numbers?!
Absolutely. Just as marketers need to learn a thing or two about service and entertainment to draw audiences, so too must programmers seek new ways of aiding marketers (and themselves) in the sales process.
In the era now ending, they've been limited to using entertainment to attract viewers, who are then sold as a lump commodity to advertisers. Lucrative, but inefficient. The new model allows them to join (in differing gradations) information, entertainment, service, advertising, data mining and direct sales.
While the technology is still cumbersome-involving, as it does, telephones and operators-it's only a step away from the point and click ease that broadband will provide. Already, according to Jeff Morris, senior VP-new media and technology development at Showtime, one out of five U.S. TV households with personal computers has the PC and TV co-located and in use simultaneously. That means consumers are ready to watch and buy and learn and interact-in ways programmers must accommodate, as functions of PC and TV merge.
The CBS and NBC experiments are steps in this direction, but they're hardly the first such efforts. There's nary a children's show on the air-the beloved "Teletubbies" included-that wasn't developed without product sales in the plan. No major Hollywood movie gets off the ground without commercial exploitation in the forefront, as the new "Austin Powers" and "Star Wars" flicks remind us. Hearst Magazines has done a terrific business in branded spinoff products. So it's plain unfair to attack the networks for trying the concept in different venues, in different dayparts.
The fact is, done right, with the coming technologies, everyone benefits, consumers included. Freed by the new revenue streams from their reliance on mass-audience generation, programmers will have the opportunity to create better and more intricate fare for narrower and more involved audiences. Consumers will have easier access to products and information to which they're exposed via programming and editorial. One man's "trinket"-to use Scott's dismissive word for the rhinestones hawked on "Guiding Light"-is another woman's bauble.
Does this threaten editorial "integrity," as Scott claimed last month? Aside from the ludicrousness of even positing integrity's existence in music programming (which has a long relationship with the recording industry) and in soap operas (which were, of course, invented by package-goods marketers), why can't we let viewers be the judge? If a show or film or magazine puts sales first and infotainment values second, the audience will flee. If, however, the relationship between the program and the pitch is integral, there can be winners all around.