NBC Puts Dollars Before Sense

Television, as we all know, is capable of the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Much of the coverage of Sept. 11 and subsequent events illustrates the good. We've stood aghast at the work, and the recorded words, of terrorists. We've been heartened, and sometimes moved to tears, by the efforts of individuals, cities, and nations to draw together and affirm human decency.

And all that with the help of television.

Now for some bad and ugly.

Bad taste, really. That label fits NBC's plan to compete for some of February's Super Bowl audience by staging a "Fear Factor" episode featuring recent Playboy bunnies.

"Fear Factor" is a variety of "reality TV" that puts people in situations that range from disgusting to scary. The contestant who can endure bugs crawling all over her body, or jumping into a dark pit, wins, supposedly.

NBC wagers that a lot of the Super Bowl living-room crowd won't be able to resist switching to its offering at halftime. The network may be right, but its plunge into the tawdry marks a new low for the medium.

Uglier, however, is the same company's decision to drop a 50-year ban on hard-liquor ads on network television. The timing couldn't be worse, coming during the holidays, when concerns about over-drinking and drunk driving are high.

NBC is starting with late-night shows like Jay Leno's, and it has drawn up a set of standards concerning how old the actors in the ads can be (not under 30) and when the ads can run.

The toughest standard, perhaps, requires liquor firms to sponsor four months of public-service ads, calling for responsible drinking, before they can run straight product-promotion spots.

Still, the best standard is the one upheld by the ban: Don't use this highly persuasive medium to pitch products that can ruin lives.

A concern for public health and, particularly, for the well-being of children keeps cigarette ads off TV. It should do the same for liquor ads.

And, yes, logic would demand that beer ads go, too. Beer, after all, has become the primary way Americans consume alcohol - thanks, in no small part, to hundreds of millions of dollars each year in television ads.

That may not happen, but anti-drinking groups, concerned political leaders, and responsible people in the television industry can rally to keep NBC's uncorking of this bottle from becoming a torrent.

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