Air Fare

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Published

January 21, 2005
OnTheCommons.org

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Selling is your business, your reason for being. Then you discover that people are shopped out. They want to simplify their lives.

What do you do?

Real simple. In a marketing stroke that approaches self-parody, the whizzes at Time Warner decided that the way to deal with the urge to simplify is to turn it into — yes — something more to buy. They came up with a new “title”— as they say in the magazine trade — to guide hapless consumers through the simplicity shoals, by recommending products to help them along the way. The name: Real Simple.

Real Simple is a “market-research phenomenon” as the Wall Street Journal put it politely a few weeks ago. There is no editorial vision, no one with anything in particular to say. Instead there are teams of researchers who visit readers’ homes, even shop with them, to find out what they might be urged to buy next. In the works is a line of Real Simple licensed products, “which could hit stores either late next year or early 2006,” the Journal said.

Simplicity isn’t so simple in a culture that does not recognize the reality of things until someone is making money from them. But what jumped out from the Journal piece was a line about a television series that Real Simple is developing — for PBS. The Public Broadcasting System. Why would a network devoted to public service run a series produced by a magazine that, as the Journal put it, is “full of product recommendations”, not just in the ads but in the stories as well?

A day or two later I happened to pick up a copy of a magazine called Everyday Food that was lying around the house. (My wife had responded to a special trial offer.) Everyday Food is part of the Martha Stewart stable; the rivalry with Time Warner, which Stewart left to create her own empire, is a subplot we happily can pass over here. Anyway as I scanned the masthead I learned that it too is producing a series for PBS. What’s going on, I thought. Is PBS becoming the Infomercial Channel — the Product Broadcasting System?

We don’t get cable, which means we don’t watch TV at home. But I do get a glance now and then in hotel rooms and at the gym, and it does seem that public television is being ingested by the consumption culture it was supposed to be an alternative to. A while back I caught the documentary Affluenza, on the pathologies of that culture, on KQED in San Francisco. The hour began with a long plug for a local car dealer that could have been on a commercial station. At first I thought it was part of the documentary. But no, it was an “underwriter” announcement. The folks at KQED apparently were oblivious to how they had become a specimen of the pathology on which they were reporting..

I also catch the audio version of the Lehrer Report on public radio from time to time. The plugs for Archer Daniels Midland seem to get longer by the month. They began as one-sentence (though a very long one) underwriter credits. Now they are full-blown ads in all but name. The worst probably is Teletubbies, a TV show aimed at toddlers who are one year old. In reality it’s an entry-level drug, developed in partnership with McDonalds and Burger-King. ( “New Teletubbies Program Opens Vast Merchandising, Marketing Channels”, a trade publication enthused when the show was launched.)

I have a two year old son, and the thought of media big shots sitting around in fancy offices thinking up ways to hook him on television and junk food, does not put me into a good mood. The worst part is, these are our airwaves — yours and mine and everyone’s. Our airwaves are being used to subvert our kids. Then comes PBS, which is supposed to be an enclave on the junked-up spectrum, a place where people can communicate honestly with other people without huckstering and hype.

Yet now our own enclave on our own spectrum has decided to target our kids on behalf of corporate junk-food sponsors?

I know, I know. Ken Burns and all. A friend just told me about a show on simple living that really is about simple living. It takes manure to enable the vegetables to grow. But there’s a point at which the manure starts to get the upper hand. Bargain with the devil and the devil usually persists until he has it all. I wonder whether public television as presently conceived is just a lost cause. Maybe the millions that go to “public” television should go instead to public radio, which is less corrupted and where a dollar goes a great deal further.

Keep PBS or junk it, we need a new way to pay for our own enclaves on our spectrum. It seems to me that the media giants that now use our airwaves for free ought to pay some rent. A study done at the New America Foundation (http://www.newamerica.net/index.cfm?pg=article&DocID=844) a few years ago found that just a 5% fee on the ad revenues of commercial broadcasters would yield well over $2 billion a year. Those proceeds could go, in whole or part, to support public broadcasting. Then these stations wouldn’t have to go begging to corporations that want to get their hooks into our kids.

If Fox can charge advertisers for space on the spectrum it controls, why shouldn’t we charge Fox for the use of the spectrum we own in the first place? Real simple, if you ask me.

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