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Inventing The Commercial
THE IMPERIUM OF modern television advertising was born in desperate improvisation
May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
Until the networks, under agency pressure, began selling thirty-second commercials in 1971, advertisers had sixty seconds to make their demos work. To minimize risk, most demos were filmed or taped. Today’s commercials are almost all thirty seconds long. Result: More commercials but fewer demos. Reason: Performing a credible demonstration in thirty seconds is not easy at all.
In 1949 the rules of tv began to change when Sylvester (“Pat”) Weaver left the highly respected Young & Rubicam agency to join NBC-TV as its president. Weaver believed that the networks, not the advertisers, should decide what shows to air and at what times to air them. When he took the job with NBC, he made it clear that he would devote himself to programming, not just to selling minutes of commercial time. This was heresy.
Since the days of radio’s “A&P Gypsies,” “The Ford Sunday Evening Hour,” and “The Voice of Firestone,” advertisers had owned not only their shows but their time slots too. Pat Weaver rewrote the book. First he launched his “Magazine Concept”: Advertisers could participate in shows that NBC would produce just as advertisers participated in magazines. But NBC would own and control the programs’ content. A tectonic power shift was at hand.
If Weaver succeeded, NBC would earn a profit from producing shows as well as from the commercials that ran within them. Also, by selling one minute participations, NBC could bring network TV within the reach of smaller advertisers, companies that couldn’t afford to sponsor entire programs on their own.
CBS had taken this tack in radio in 1948 and succeeded, gambling on launching a number of untried shows on its own, unsponsored. Within a year advertisers were lining up to buy participations in them. Two of the shows—“Our Miss Brooks,” with Eve Arden, and “My Favorite Husband,” with Lucille Ball —became TV hits as well, the latter as “I Love Lucy,” which is still running. In 1950 Weaver launched “Today,” with Dave Garroway, and “The Home Show,” with Arlene Francis. In 1954 he added “The Tonight Show,” with Steve Alien. All three were hits with viewers and advertisers. Forty-three years later “Today” and “The Tonight Show” still run.
Endless rehearsals, truckloads of food, and real human tears went into these live how-to commercials.
The shows ran in “fringe” time—early morning, midday, and late night—time that network advertisers normally shunned. But all three offered participations rather than full sponsorships, so an advertiser could buy commercials a minute at a time. NBC also offered “Today’/’Home“/“Tonight” combination buys, giving smaller advertisers a way to pitch their goods to three different audiences at a relatively low cost. Weaver’s new concept turned a healthy profit. So he next planted his flag in prime time, 8:00 to 11:00 P.M. NBC launched “Your Show of Shows,” starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, on Saturday nights, again selling only participations. And again with success.
Across town at CBS, its president, Frank Stanton, was happy to align his network with Weaver’s in the spot-not-sponsorship shift. Stanton had seen it work for CBS radio. So NBC and CBS, independently but in parallel, edged the agencies out of programming. In exchange the networks assumed the risk for buying and creating new shows and for paying for those that flopped.
The agencies resisted surrendering control over programming—and the profits that went with it—but they soon saw the benefits in picking and choosing their spot participations. This gave them new flexibility in how and where to spend their clients’ money, and it excused them from facing irate clients when an expensive agencycreated show turned out to be a turkey. A few advertisers continued to sponsor shows of their own, regardless of rising costs and network pressure. “Hallmark Hall of Fame” is still a valiant holdout after nearly fifty years, but as a special event, not a weekly regular.
What this change meant for the viewer was that original quality drama and experimental or exploratory television, such as “Omnibus” and “See It Now,” disappeared to make room for mass entertainment—Westerns, cop shows, sitcoms, and games. These were hardly all bad, but excellence became rare, greatness even rarer.
Most major agencies and their clients had exited show business entirely by the sixties. Instead they focused their creative energies on building more distinctive commercials. By then the agencies were scattering oneminute spots here, there, and yonder, so it became more important than ever that these messages be noticed and remembered, no matter where viewers might find them. This dictated filmed, not live, commercials. Some advertisers, especially of autos and cigarettes, had been able to afford filmed commercials even during television’s barroom epoch in the forties. And when color TV arrived in 1953, they were among the first to switch over to it, swallowing production costs that grew by a third or more.