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Television Advertising: A Brief History

Radio Precedents | The Single-Sponsor Era | The Triumph of the "Magazine Concept"

Radio Precedents

Although broadcasting was initially conceived as a means to sell radio sets, broadcasting and advertising have become virtually synonymous for American listeners and viewers, taken for granted as being fundamental to both the structure and function of radio and television. If one were to isolate a single event that marked the birth of commercial broadcasting in America, it would probably be the radio program emanating from station WEAF in New York City on August 28, 1922, a ten-minute advertisement for suburban apartment housing. By Christmas of that year, several major New York department stores were "renting" the airwaves for similar pitches.

This marriage of big business advertising, public entertainment and information, and mass media technology was unlike any form of communication ever devised, bringing economic, ideological, cultural, and technological forces together in an elaborate and unprecedented coalition. By the late 1920s this coalition had matured to the point where advertising agencies had taken control of the schedule, buying air time from the networks or individual stations and producing programs themselves on behalf of sponsors.


The Single-Sponsor Era

Yet there is little doubt that as a force for advertising, radio was in many ways a prelude—albeit a complex and remarkably successful one—to the eventual arrival of television. Although the Depression and then World War II stalled the newer medium's progress, when full-time telecasting began in 1948 its impact was considerable. The advertising world approached television cautiously at first, unsure whether the new medium would prove to be simply "radio with pictures" or require an entire reconsideration of selling principles. However, the rapidity with which television captured the public imagination—combined with surveys showing that brand recognition levels were higher than in radio—meant that television evolved as a genuine mass medium, providing sponsors with an unprecedented means of reaching the consumer. Thus television schedules in the 1950s were chock full of programs with titles such as Kraft Television Theater, Colgate Comedy Hour, and Coke Time. As with radio, these programs were produced by advertising agencies for their sponsor-clients.

However, the television audience was (and remains) a paradoxical, abstract entity, not an amalgam of individuals with differing backgrounds, tastes, and interests but a huge consumer collective that could be attracted en masse and delivered, so to speak, to advertisers. Since the networks were competing for that national audience, television programming became more important to their economic success. Increasingly, the networks found themselves coveting the sponsor/ad agency programming control, and the sponsors in turn found themselves hard-pressed to underwrite increasingly costly programs.


The Triumph of the "Magazine Concept"

NBC executive Sylvester L. "Pat" Weaver advanced the networks' answer to the problem: participation advertising, dubbed the "magazine concept." Under this arrangement, advertisers purchased discrete segments of shows (typically one- or two-minute blocks) rather than entire programs. Like magazines, which featured ads for a variety of products, the participation show might carry commercials from up to four different sponsors. Similarly, just as a magazine's editorial practice was presumably divorced from its advertising content, the presence of multiple sponsors meant that no one advertiser could control the program. By Weaver's reckoning, the network would assume that responsibility.

While participation advertising met with some initial resistance on Madison Avenue, many agencies saw that it was the ideal promotional vehicle for packaged-goods companies manufacturing a cornucopia of brand names, such as Procter and Gamble with such disparate products as Tide (laundry detergent), Crest (toothpaste), and Jif (peanut butter). By 1960, the magazine concept dominated television advertising, as it has ever since. Instead of relying on audience identification with a specific show, sponsors now spread their messages across the schedule in an effort to reach as many consumers (or at least as many of those within a specified demographic) as possible. There is no denying that as an instrument of mass communication conveying information and entertainment to the general American public, as an instrument of mass merchandising and advertising for the business community, and as a source of massive profits for the networks, American commercial television is eminently successful.


Mike Mashon
M/B/RS Division

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