DUI in TV-land

Years ago, comedian Martin Mull described the TV business as being "like high school with money." It's a very funny concept. And sad to say, it's mostly true.

The latest evidence of this discouraging fact came last month when NBC decided to pick up some extra money from Diageo Plc, the makers of Smirnoff vodka. In return, the peacock network broke a decades-old policy and began airing commercials for hard liquor.

Some people say it's no big deal. A spokesman for Diageo called the ban on hard-liquor ads "an artificial barrier." Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I saw it as part of broadcasting's long-standing promise to operate on behalf of the public interest.

When the networks were independent entities, there was more accountability. Critics who objected to programming or advertising could go directly to William Paley at CBS or David Sarnoff at NBC and say, "Are you proud of what you're putting on the air?" Now, with the networks reduced to mere "units" within giant conglomerates, executives can run for cover inside all those layers of corporate management.

Am I sounding like the town crank? I hope no one tells me to loosen up and adopt a more European attitude. I got tired of hearing that suggestion during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Truth be told, I flunked my European test a few years ago when a TV show from England found its way onto the American airwaves, and I refused to become a fan. It was called "Absolutely Fabulous" and featured two saucy female characters, one of whom was constantly tipsy. It had a cult following, but I have never found alcoholic humor funny.

I was, however, highly amused by a quote in one of the news stories about NBC's decision from a guy named Manny Goldman, a consumer-products consultant, who said, "[The situation isn't like] a hundred years ago where whiskey was the work of the devil. Those old arguments that it's bad, bad - those just don't hold." Manny should have cracked the history books more in study hall. I'd advise him to read about life in London circa 1725, when you could buy gin on any street corner and one of the popular sayings was "Drunk for a penny. Dead drunk for twopence."

Ah, but that kind of thing will never happen again, advertisers say, because we have rules now. NBC listed numerous platitudes, er, I mean restrictions, intended to protect children from the new ads and promote personal responsibility. But no amount of guidelines can change the fact that commercials exist for one reason: to increase consumption of a product. In the first nine months of 2001, beermakers spent more than $600 million on TV advertising in pursuit of that goal. It's not hard to see what the networks hope to gain by offering equal time to the hard-liquor set.

Yes, the TV business is like high school with money. And too often these days, it seems as if the class clowns have taken over the building.

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