TV ads -- Will standards rise or fall without the code?

TV ads. They annoy. They interrupt. They inform. And they sometimes even entertain. Now - thanks to action by the federal government - they could be on the verge of significant, if gradual, change.

The long-lived ad code of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), threatened with an antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department, now is in the process of being dropped.

What will take its place? Will the change lead to lower standards for advertisers on US television?

A Monitor survey of top executives at television associations, stations, and advertising agencies finds:

* There will probably be no rush toward big changes.

* Policies governing ads for such items as liquor and over-the-counter drugs could eventually be affected, especially among financially strapped broadcasters.

These executives point out that compliance with the old NAB code was voluntary anyway. But some admit off the record that there could be changes in certain borderline areas. Viewers may expect an eventual increase in advertisements for feminine-hygiene products, contraceptives, and over-the-counter drugs - in some cases at earlier hours.

Some financially starved TV stations may even accept liquor advertising. Only wine and beer ads have been accepted in the past. Recent attempts to inaugurate liquor advertising in Massachusetts and Indiana brought so much consumer protest that they were dropped. Cigarette advertising was banned in 1971 by federal law.

Happily for viewers, most TV executives say commercial time per program has already reached the limits of consumer acceptance, so little change is expected in the number of commercials. Again, stations desperate for revenue may be the exception.

In general, the attitude seems to be that TV viewers will be seeing just about the same ads in the same numbers as they have been seeing this past year, unless declining economic conditions cause any unethical stations and advertisers to take risks.

CBS has already established its own code for its five owned-and-operated stations, according to Gene Mader, CBS senior vice-president for policy. NAB president Edward O. Fritts says his organization is creating a special study panel to come up with a new code acceptable to the Justice Department.

The department charged that the earlier code, though voluntary, violated antitrust law by allowing the broadcasting industry to limit companies' right to promote their products.

In the meantime, according to Mr. Fritts, ''Each licensee continues to remain the sole judge of broadcast policies it should follow in the public interest.''

Robert Hallahan, director of the NAB news bureau, says although broadcasters have their own individual codes, they want more guidelines. ''As far as we can tell, so far stations are pretty much complying with the old code guidelines which banned alcohol and contraceptive ads,'' he says.

''When radio was deregulated a couple of years ago there was a great hue and cry that we were going to see wall-to-wall commercials,'' says CBS's Mader. ''That didn't happen. The public simply won't accept such a thing. And if the public won't listen and watch, there's nothing for the ads to sell.''

Roy Danish, director of the Television Information Office, a public-information arm of the industry, says any changes will happen slowly.

''Even without a code, I don't think you would have seen contraceptive ads in the past and you may not for some time. You certainly won't see many, if any, whiskey ads for a long time,'' he says. ''Broadcasters tend to be quite sensitive to community attitudes, and it would take enormous incentives, which I don't see contraceptive or whiskey advertising offering right now.

''The average TV viewer will probably not be able to perceive any immediate changes,'' he says. But things could change over the next five to 10 years as society changes, he adds. ''Of course, if we fall on hard times, you'll see all kinds of experiments in order to find the best economic balance.''

Len Matthews, president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, says: ''We were shocked and surprised that the Justice Department criticized the code in the first place. This is responsible self-regulation. By and large it was a good job.

''We really don't feel the end of the code will have any major effect. . . . It is to no one's interest to overcommercialize the medium. The advertising community already feels that TV is a bit more commercial than we would like to see it. There is too much station promotional advertising, which adds to the clutter. We have been requesting a reduction in that for some time.

''You may find a rare marginal station operator whose ethical standards are low who might be tempted to sell time to liquor, contraceptive, and female-hygiene product advertisers. But in general, the changes will be minimal.''

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