We interrupt TV’s disruption for ... even more disruption
Editor’s note: To mark our 90th year, we’re diving deep into our archives as part of an ongoing series we’re calling 90 years of Ad Age.
Anyone who’s ever complained about the exhausting excess of upfronts week—and that includes pretty much everyone working in the TV business—is suddenly nostalgic for the pretense of normalcy and stability fostered by the now-canceled bazaar. It was maddening, it was illogical, it was an anachronism, but it was comforting to an industry whose core business model has been coming apart at the seams for years now.
At Ad Age, we’ve been thinking a lot about the transformation of TV as we’ve been prepping for Ad Age’s TV Pivot, a two-day (May 12-13) virtual event that will explore the state of the TV ad marketplace and how the industry is navigating the pandemic. After all, this publication, born as Advertising Age in 1930, has been around for the entire history of ad-supported television: Grainy, experimental TV broadcasts started crackling to life in the late 1920s, but the first official FCC-sanctioned TV commercial, from watchmaker Bulova, aired only on July 1, 1941 (on New York City’s WNBT, now known as WNBC). In diving deep in our archives, what became clear is that the TV business—and the advertising ecosystem surrounding it—has always been something of a rollercoaster ride. Consider, for instance, the language in a series of stories we published in the ’80s and ’90s:
On Dec. 19, 1983, in a piece titled “Atari founder develops revolutionary tv,” Ad Age described a near-future world of, basically, addressable advertising, in which commercials “could be aimed at homes with preselected demographics and psychographics” and “present measurement techniques could become obsolete” (sound familiar?).
In “NBC unit eyes home shopping,” published April 19, 1993, Advertising Age reported that “NBC is trying to develop some new revenue bases” (imagine that) and was causing some advertisers agita with its “plans to sell products directly to viewers, transforming itself from a media middleman to a direct marketer.”
And then just weeks later, on May 24, we reported on Time Warner’s plans to “hit the streets in mid-June with the first formal advertising presentation for its electronic superhighway” (the word “internet” was conspicuously missing from the story) as the conglomerate prepared to launch “the first full-service interactive network early next year in Orlando, where it plans to deliver interactive games and services, home shopping, movies on demand and telephone services through cable TV.”
The common thread of these and other TVland stories we surfaced in the 90-year rabbit hole of our archives: an industry always on the verge of some Next Big Thing (cable! color! satellite! interactive! streaming!).
In a way, the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to step back and really try to make sense of the TV industry’s own continual, decades-long disruption.
This is a business that’s constantly swerving—er, pivoting—all over the place. Where have the goal posts moved now? On May 12 and 13, we’re going to try to figure that out.