KCET, the PBS station in Los Angeles, is wrapping up their latest pledge drive, that most special time which comes but several times a year, when PBS pretends to be what VH1 used to be before it morphed into E! (Honestly, VH1, what happened to the music? If people really cared to get snarky pop-culture wisecracks from some bozo they've never heard of, they'd be reading this blog post.)
It's an amazing bait-and-switch. Every few months, your local PBS station begs you - and Viewers Like You - to support their programming for the rest of the year, yet they do this by cramming their schedule with shows which they ONLY air when they're pleading for dough. We get Eagles: Hell Freezes Over and Pink Floyd: Pulse and tributes to doo-wop and the British Invasion. We get Suze Orman and Dr. Wayne Dyer and some guy who'll teach you how to play the piano in an afternoon.
But most of all, we get Roy Orbison: A Black-And-White Night.
It's easy to understand why this 1988 special would originally have been catnip to the middle-aged boomers whose wallets are firmly in PBS's sights. Not only was Roy a legend, still in command of his amazing voice, but this beautifully shot concert, staged at the famed Cocoanut Grove, featured an all-star lineup of musicians and singers behind The Other Man In Black. Springsteen and Costello. Raitt and Waits. Jackson (Browne) and T-Bone (Burnett). J.D. (Souther) and k.d. (lang). Every music buff in the target demo was bound to be a fan of at least ONE of those people. Fire enough buckshot and you're bound to hit something. A quick check online indicates that KCET broadcast A Black-And-White Night three times during this latest drive, which I believe is the congressionally-mandated minimum. Simply put, Roy Orbison: A Black-And-White Night is to PBS what The Shawshank Redemption is to TNT.
But can it really be so irresistible that folks will tune in year after year, airing after airing, Pavlovian-pledging whenever they hear the opening riff of "Oh, Pretty Woman"? Even the dumbest fish in the lake is going to catch on if you keep using the same lure over and over again. "Don't pick up that phone, honey. Remember when we sent them a check last time? All they showed 'til the next pledge drive was nature films, old British sitcoms and documentaries about incredibly depressing stuff. We can get all that on cable!"
At least NPR sticks to its guns during pledge drives. They don't yank This American Life to air The Best of Opie and Anthony. They don't replace Terry Gross with Larry The Cable Guy. They don't dump the Car Talk guys because...well, because they couldn't find anything lower-common-denominator if they tried. All I'm saying is, if PBS has to tart itself up as something it's not in order to attract donors, isn't that a de facto admission that their regular schedule isn't enough of a draw to justify their existence?
It's an issue worth pondering, because we're rapidly approaching the day when ALL programs will essentially be commercial-free, thanks to a little button known as Fast Forward. Undoubtedly, the big networks have frantically commissioned a trillion-dollar time-travel project to go back and prevent the invention of the remote control, but there's no putting this genie back in its AA-battery-powered bottle. I confess that the only time I backtrack my DVR to watch a spot these days is when I notice that a new "PC vs. Mac" ad has premiered. (Heck, if they can give a sitcom pilot to the Geico cavemen, can't we petition The Office to hire John "And I'm a PC" Hodgman?)
Since everyone's zipping through the commercials, rattling the foundations of the economic model which has sustained the business for decades, we're seeing the re-emergence of the embedded sponsor. The early days of television were thick with such in-show branding, from Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theatre to What's My Line?, where the set prominently featured the logo of their sponsor, which at one point was, I swear to you, a deodorant body powder called Poof! Now this phenomenon is returning with a vengeance, particularly on "reality" shows and most unavoidably on American Idol, where Coke glasses are strategically placed before the judges at all times. Just imagine all the naughty interplay between Simon and Ryan if their sponsor were Poof!
Even the hipper, scripted shows aren't immune. In the pilot of 30 Rock, the satirical nature of a running gag about Alec Baldwin's corporate big-shot having invented the GE Trivection oven was undercut by GE's decision to place three commercials for that very product during the premiere airing. And a Staples-branded shredder found its way far too blatantly into an episode of The Office this fall -- while, amazingly, no one has yet embraced one blogger's brilliant and less invasive cross-promotional suggestion of allowing Staples to sell Dunder-Mifflin-branded paper.
So where are we headed? Is such product intrusion the price we have to pay for our itchy remote fingers? Are we doomed to return to the artistically chilling days when the gas company sponsoring a Playhouse 90 presentation of "Judgment at Nuremberg" could veto the script's use of the phrase "gas chambers"? Or will the major networks be forced to explore new avenues to bring in operating capital?
"Hi, I'm Katie Couric. We're pre-empting the CBS Evening News tonight to ask you to do your part. Won't you donate to keep CBS on the air? Otherwise, we may be unable to bring you the quality shows you've come to expect from the Tiffany Netwo...excuse me. In the booth, they're reminding me that we've recently sold the naming rights, and we are now officially 'CBS - the Zales: The Diamond Store Network'.
"Please give generously so you can continue to enjoy such fine programming as Two and A Half Men Who Enjoy Dinty Moore Beef Stew, CSI: IKEA, The JAG-Office Depot Hour and Flamin' Hot Cheetos presents 60 Minutes.
"And now, back to Roy Orbison: A Black-And-White Night."