FROM his comfortable beige corner office high above Rockefeller Center, Rick Gitter is watching commercials. Mr. Gitter, NBC's chief ad censor, pops a three-quarter-inch tape into a large videocassette recorder and settles behind his desk. A rough ``animatic'' for a new feminine hygiene product appears on his TV set. The camera pans the length of a prone nude silhouette. ``For Women Only'' flashes on the screen. A soft voice briefly describes the product. But as the tape ends, Gitter shakes his head. ``Too graphic,'' he says. ``The implication of nudity bothers me. And the phrasing is too explicit.''
NBC's commercial clearance department screens some 50,000 scripts, storyboards, and completed ads each year. The process works well, most observers say. ``Network ads are more responsible today,'' says a senior partner of a major New York advertising law firm. ``They have to be. Ever since the Federal Trade Commission retired from the enforcement front [in 1980], the network's self-regulatory role has become more important.''
The deemphasis on advertising regulation by federal agencies has pushed the networks into a more prominent oversight position. But financial and social pressures are slowly chipping away at the networks' standards.
The feminine hygiene commercial will join some 4,500 ads annually (8 to 9 percent of the total) that NBC censors send back to ad agencies for major revisions.
In 1985, another 14 percent of the ads reviewed required further documentation of claims made in them. A mere 0.2 percent were rejected outright by NBC that year.
If those numbers seem low, one ad agency executive complains, ``Remember there are three networks. They all get a shot at finding a nit to pick. Ninety percent of the ads we send over come back with some comment on them.''
Each of the three major networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) has long had commercial clearance departments. Each follows a nearly identical set of guidelines drawn from the now-defunct National Association of Broadcasters programming code. Every ad that appears on network television has been reviewed by the censors. Each network has at least five or six full-time commercial censors or editors. The job entails reviewing some 200 ads per week for half a dozen industries. Editors draw on their own backgrounds, consultants, academics, and in-house research departments to verify the accuracy of commercial claims. HOW EFFECTIVE IS FISH OIL? FOR example, Kitty Davenport, an NBC editor, recently attended a symposium on the health merits of fish oil supplements, a ``hot'' new product area. ``Since the [US] Food and Drug Administration has deregulated health claims associated with foods, more companies are talking up food and nutrition supplements. Our job is to keep the consumer aware of nutritional values but be careful advertisers don't claim it's a cure-all.''
Editors also look for violations of their own network's exhaustive codes. For instance, certain expletives or a skateboarder without proper safety pads are OK in programs but not commercials.
Finally, if the manufacturer of a competing product objects to advertising claims made on air, the networks are the first line of redress.
In recent years, more advertisers are making comparative claims in commercials. As a result, the value of the networks' policing efforts has risen: first, by substantiating claims before the ad runs; second, and more important, by settling disputes between competitors. In 1985, ABC handled 91 ad challenges and more than twice that number last year. The other networks report about 100 challenges in '86.
Typically, a competitor will point out misleading statements or false claims missed by the networks. If the network agrees, it will ask the advertiser for revisions. There may be negotiation over phrasing, or the networks may ask for further substantiation of claims.
If the advertiser refuses to change the ad, the network may drop it. Or if the ad continues to run, the two competitors may take the case to court or to the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (NAD). In any case, the ad campaign will probably have run its course before the dispute is resolved.
Networks often settle challenges in six weeks or less. ``Without the networks there would be more lawsuits,'' says Richard Pollet, assistant general counsel at J. Walter Thompson, a major US ad agency. ``I'd be in court every other day suing competitors or being sued.'' GOODBYE TO AD CHALLENGES? BUT there are concerns that financial pressures could cause the networks to relax their standards or scale back on arbitrating ad challenges. All three networks have had management shake-ups. Advertising sales have been soft. And network viewership has declined with the rise of cable, VCRs, and stronger independent stations. Says Ronald H. Smithies of the NAD: ``The networks are certainly giving weightier consideration to the bottom line. That has to create a conflict with running a strong advertising standards department.... These certainly aren't the days where you'd see tighter standards.''
Indeed, each of the network clearance departments has had staff cuts on the order of 10 to 30 percent recently. ``We're down to the bone,'' allows Matthew Margo, director of commercial clearance and programming practices at CBS. ``There has been some delay in the turnaround of submissions. But the function of the department has not been compromised by the cutbacks.'' ABC and NBC also deny any diminution of service.
Given the financial pressures, advertisers worry that the ad challenge service may be eliminated or tainted. In a dispute between a large advertiser and a small one, the networks may be tempted to give the edge to the advertiser that pays the bigger bill. ``It's not in our business interest or our clients' interests to run advertising that's not truthful,'' replies NBC's Gitter. He says NBC has ``tossed around'' the idea of eliminating the time-consuming ad challenge process, but he adds that he thinks such a move is unlikely.
``Overall, the networks haven't relaxed their standards,'' says Thomas McGrew, a Washington, D.C., advertising attorney. Don't forget, he adds, ``the networks are in the business to run ads.''
But while financial pressures may be temporary, the networks face a constant push from advertisers to relax their standards. Thirty years ago commercials depicting double beds or bathrooms were forbidden. Twenty years ago, brassieres, girdles, and deodorant soaps were taboo. Ten years ago, ``personal care'' products were not allowed on network TV. Today, all these are aired under strict but evolving guidelines. As society's mores change, so do the networks'. ``But we're a lot slower in changing than the press and media in general because we're dealing with the entire country at once - including the Bible belt,'' says Kay Henderson, an NBC editor who started clearing scripts in 1948 on the Milton Berle show. DEBATE OVER ADS FOR CONTRACEPTIVES THE latest controversy: the networks' ban on ads for contraceptives. Manufacturers have pushed for years to put condom ads on TV. But in recent months, pressure has grown with concern over acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), for which condoms are seen as one preventive measure. And new sources, such as the US surgeon general and Planned Parenthood Federation, are leaning on the networks.
``It's a legitimate product,'' argues Mr. Pollet. ``Who are they to be the arbiters of public morality? A responsible and reasonably tasteful condom ad may help to prevent unwanted pregnancies or AIDS. If you're not saying anything illegal or untruthful, where's the grounds for rejecting it?''
Cable, independent stations, and a growing number of print periodicals now carry contraceptive ads focusing on AIDS. The networks are reviewing their positions but haven't yet budged on the issue. ``That kind of advertising would be profoundly objectionable to a significant portion of our audience,'' says CBS spokeswoman Pam Haslam.
Network officials also emphasize their extensive coverage of AIDS in news and public-service announcements. And, theoretically, carrying contraceptive ads could cost the networks money. Even if the ads only talk of disease prevention, they might be seen as endorsing a political position that may require, by law, equal time for opposing views.
Still, Elhanan Stone, general counsel at Ted Bates Worldwide, an ad agency, says: ``It's my best belief that within the next few months, the prohibition on advertising condoms will fall.''
The networks are generally cautious, says NBC's Gitter, because it's not in their (or the advertisers') best interest to mislead or offend. ``Network TV is a guest in the viewer's home.'' How do the networks know what viewers want to see? ``We're guided by what we've done in the past, what we get flak on, and what our research department tells us people want,'' says Ms. Davenport at NBC. NETWORKS' DOUBLE STANDARD BUT advertisers complain that the networks have one standard for TV programs and another, tougher one, for commercials. ``I agree you wouldn't want to see a contraceptive ad on `The Cosby Show,''' says Loretta Donato, director of legal clearance at Grey Advertising. ``But if you're watching `Dynasty,' `Dallas,' or a soap opera, that's different. If Middle America is watching that kind of show, then they should be prepared to see those kinds of commercials.''
The networks defend the double standard. In a half-hour to two-hour show, ``you have an opportunity to explain the consequences of criminal or sexual activity, whereas a commercial is a powerful mini-drama,'' says ABC's ad clearance chief, Harvey Dzodin. ``You don't have an opportunity to play out the consequences.'' Also, he says, programs are scheduled and reviewed so viewers can decide ahead of time whether to watch. Ads, which strike anytime, are not.
Network officials say perfume, personal hygiene, and movie ads test the limits of taste most consistently. Restricting them to after 9, 10, or 11 p.m. is common. For instance, an executive of NBC's flagship station, WNBC, recently asked Gitter to take another look at a perfume ad. The executive objected to the depiction of what he thought was white slave trade. Gitter granted that the ad was ``certainly offbeat,'' even ``mildly weird.'' Then he asked: ``When's it running?''
``Three times; opposite David Letterman and `Saturday Night Live,''' the WNBC person replied. ``I have no problem with it then,'' said Gitter, leaving the executive muttering to himself. ``It's not likely to be found offensive by a late-night audience,'' said Gitter later, adding, ``We turned down a more erotic version.''
Last in a series. Previous articles ran Jan. 27, 28, and 29.