Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A Very Special Network

Back when I was a kid, you could tell when a sit-com was starting to lose it creatively when they started broadcasting "Very Special Episodes" where the normally hilarious cast would chew the scenery over some issue of the day that was afflicting one or more of the characters. In the Seventies, Very Special Episodes revolved around the angst of the era: joblessness, economic decline, drug use, teen pregnancy, and crime. During the Reagan Era when everyone had a job, Very Special Episodes focused on social issues: drug use, teen pregnancy, etc.

It's been quite a few years since I watched network television (I lost touch with the zeitgeist when I started law school), but NBC has taken the Very Special Episode to new heights, such that it is now a Very Special Network: Why NBC Universal Shows Are Sending Viewers Signals to recycle, Exercise, and Eat Right

In just one week on NBC, the detectives on "Law and Order" investigated a cash-for-clunkers scam, a nurse on "Mercy" organized a group bike ride, Al Gore made a guest appearance on "30 Rock," and "The Office" turned Dwight Schrute into a cape-wearing superhero obsessed with recycling.

Coincidence? Hardly. NBC Universal planted these eco-friendly elements into scripted television shows to influence viewers and help sell ads.

The tactic—General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal calls it "behavior placement"—is designed to sway viewers to adopt actions they see modeled in their favorite shows. And it helps sell ads to marketers who want to associate their brands with a feel-good, socially aware show.

Unlike with product placement, which can seem jarring to savvy viewers, the goal is that viewers won't really notice that Tina Fey is tossing a plastic bottle into the recycle bin, or that a minor character on "Law and Order: SVU" has switched to energy-saving light bulbs. "People don't want to be hit over the head with it," says NBC Universal Chief Executive Jeff Zucker. "Putting it in programing is what makes it resonate with viewers."

Honestly, aren't any of these people embarrassed by this? It's nothing more than propaganda, and dull propaganda at that. A show like Seinfeld didn't need this sort of special political message in order to have cultural resonance. In fact, that was part of its cynical ("no hugging!") appeal. Plus, NBC is making the cardinal mistake of all creative people: believing that the audience will be moved by whatever is placed in front of it:

TV has always had the ability to get millions of people to mimic a beloved character. Ever since Carrie Bradshaw on "Sex and the City" stopped in at the Magnolia Bakery, fans of the show wait in long lines for the once-quiet shop's $2.75 cupcakes. When Jennifer Aniston as Rachel on "Friends" cut her hair, salons across the country reported requests for the shaggy, highlighted, layered look known as "the Rachel."

This is the power of persuasion that NBC hopes to tap.

Look, stuff like that works because it appeals to the audience's pre-existing desires. People like cupcakes, and want to know where to go to get good ones; hence the lines at Magnolia Bakery. Women like cute haircuts, hence the requests for "the Rachel." But, do people want to be lectured on recycling and carbon credits? No! We already get enough of that on the news! (which, coincidentally, NBC also sucks at providing).

NBC says it's using this "subtle messaging" to mainstream pro-environment messages in the same way they've been able to mainstream hairstyles. Sorry, but the pro-environment "message" is already mainstream. You get a steady diet of "Earth Day"-style environmental messaging from the minute you walk into elementary school and it never lets up, as NBC can attest. We've "Saved the Whales," "Saved the Rainforest," "Fought Global Warming," and engaged in numerous other struggles to Save the Environment. A perp drinking coffee out of a ceramic mug while Stabler goes Bad Cop on his ass in Law & Order: SVU isn't going to add much to the discussion.

Thanks to its "subtle messaging," NBC has made explicit what was always implicit: that it is a network dedicated to a particular political viewpoint (guess which one). It's a free country and they can do what they want, but so can the audience. And if NBC prefers to politicize rather than entertain, the audience will find another place to plant its eyeballs.

No comments:

Post a Comment