NEW YORK — ADVERTISERS, who have always influenced television programming, are today more powerful than ever.Recently, with the recession squeezing program producers, and network viewers moving to cable channels, the large corporations that buy commercial time are also investing significant amounts in the actual production of shows. Advertiser investment in programs repeats a pattern common in the heyday of radio, and the early years of television, when companies like Philip Morris sought complete on-air identification with their shows. That situation, which reaches to the very heart of commercial television, is explored by Leo Bogart, an advertising expert, in a paper he produced for the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center. Mr. Bogart, a former executive with the Newspaper Advertising Bureau, writes in his essay, "The American Media System and Its Commercial Culture": "For advertisers, media are advertising media, not avenues of public enlightenment or cultural enhancement. The people who manage most media enterprises have, for many years, regarded advertisers, rather than the public, as their primary clients." The real significance of the concentration of advertising power is that "in its relentless pursuit of audience size, it fosters conservatism and discourages genuine innovation," Bogart writes.
Dangers from special-interest groups The growing presence of the advertisers has exposed the networks to more direct pressure from a variety of special-interest groups. In a recent letter to advertising agencies, the Network Television Association, representing ABC, CBS, and NBC, warned sponsors against organized campaigns threatening boycotts of "controversial" shows. "There are some whose tactics involve substituting open debate with intimidation," the association wrote. "These organizations may claim to represent large constituencies; however, in reality, they typically represent vocal minorities with agendas inconsistent with the views of most Americans," the letter said. When asked about the advantages for advertisers in owning part of a show, Gary Montanus, senior vice president of marketing for WorldVision, which produces and syndicates major TV programs, says that it provided them with greater clout in convincing producers to focus on target groups and determining themes, topics, and the placement of programs. Mr. Montanus viewed it as a thoroughly positive development.