Do yourself a favor and check out the latest Extra! , the publication put out by non-profit media-watch group FAIR. Their media c ritique starts like this: locate the source of financial contributors to any media outlet (in this case, PBS), analyze program content and detail the relationship between the two. It's a tried format, one FAIR is good at. The point it makes is simple - mo ney dictates content.
If you think noncommercial broadcasting is any different than the regular kind, guess again. According to Extra! , corporations make up the largest source of funds for programming produced by PBS's National Program Servi ce. So even on "liberal" public TV, issues are played out through the eyes of government officials and professionals rather than citizen activists or otherwise real people. Programs concerning areas like economics are geared to investors rather than worke rs or consumers.
Particularly odd is how public TV's commercial function has so handily grown to supplement regular TV. In the '90s, as advertising shifts toward a more subtle, public-relations approach, it seems fitting that the "soft-sell" form publ ic TV plugs take would pose a welcome alternative to "hard-sell" commercials. According to Extra! , corporations "donate" some $90 million to PBS, a figure that suggests free money is more cost-effective than old-fashioned commercials. A well-place d logo can work wonders for public relations, turning such unlikely candidates as Exxon into environmental care-takers.
In her "When Is A Commercial Not A Commercial? When It's On Noncommercial TV," Janine Jackson notes that PBS doesn't consider spots for corporate sponsors commercials, but "enhanced underwriter acknowledgements." As Jackson points out, their presence is of dubious legality considering the Communications Act of 1934 specifically forbids noncommercial stations from accepting compensati on for broadcasting messages that "promote any service, facility or product offered by any person who is engaged in such offering for profit." But since the late 70s, this law has been virtually ignored. PBS even goes so far as to advertise its services t o corporations in an advertising trade magazine, further obscuring any distinctions between it and commercial institutions like NBC or Newsweek .
What applies to public television likewise applies to public radio; noncommercial outlets are ofte n more effective at selling products than commercial media. Key promoters of classical music agree that National Public Radio has become the most important broadcast outlet for their releases (Billboard, May 8, 1993). "Non-commercial stations have more fl exibility in their format," Kevin Copps of Elektra told Billboard (Sept.18, 1994). "The commercial stations seem to be going more and more into this routine of just playing music - not promoting any one thing or talking much about the music."
T hink about it and it makes sense. The only thing that, in the long run, makes commercial radio more effective at selling music than noncommercial is it's reach - more people hear it. Considered more "cutting edge," noncommercial radio has a closer relati onship with its listeners. It's audience may be smaller, but the percentage of listeners likely to buy music based on what they hear is greater.
As it is with television, noncommercial and commercial radio now fill complementary roles: noncommercial i dentifies tomorrow's pop stars, then sells them to the commercial sphere where everybody cashes in. Granted, this isn't a perfect parallel, since it addresses radio's ability to sell music, rather than products in general. What is significant, however, is how it represents the increasing symbiosis between commercial and noncommercial media, and, in a broader sense, the disappearing boundary between advertising and public relations. In our hyper-mediated culture, it's increasingly difficult to distinguish the non-profit from the profit, the art from the product plug. Done correctly, watching television - or listening to the radio - isn't easy.
Go to the next article: Blurbs - by Carrie McLaren
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