PAX TV IS SELDOM HAILED as a trailblazer, but the would-be seventh network (not to be confused with “fifth Beatle”) might have stumbled onto something by putting the kibosh on programming operations and retreating to the comfort of infomercials.Granted, program-length commercials are annoying, but they’re produced with considerably less cost and sweat than primetime fare that increasingly approximates the same cheesy feel by weaving commercials throughout its content. This is hardly a new complaint, and I sympathize with ad industry fears of zap-happy viewers. Yet that shouldn’t defuse concerns regarding when consumers finally say enough already. And while ad ooze has seemingly occurred without a discernable backlash, networks delving further into Pax-ville (right next to Hooterville on your TV map) might only realize they’ve crossed the border once it’s too late. As for those who note that these tie-ins date back to “Texaco Star Theater,” the modern iterations really began with “Survivor,” which expanded upon product integration in novel ways. In the past five years, this drip-drip-drip has corresponded with the equally dubious drip-drip-drip of morning “news” featuring ousted contestants from reality competition shows, which have themselves gone a little haywire. Consider “The Apprentice,” where a recent task to develop a product for Staples gave way to an ad for the same product, brought to you by Staples. That was preceded by Donald Trump’s customary spiel about how fabulous Staples is, as Staples execs beamed at him. No wonder I began TiVo-ing the show and zapping directly to the boardroom eliminations. Such advertiser penetration has largely happened in slow motion, but financial pressures will likely hasten the pace. Take the hugely expensive National Football League broadcast deals inked in recent months, motivating programmers to milk every ounce of promotional value from the games — as if sponsored kickoffs, halftime shows, injury reports and between-play blurbs weren’t sufficiently irritating. Not surprisingly, advocacy groups maintain that a consumer revolt has quietly begun. “The American public is on our side,” says Gary Ruskin, exec director of the Ralph Nader-founded Commercial Alert, which has lobbied for greater restraint and disclosure. As evidence, Ruskin cites a 2004 Yankelovich Partners survey that found more than 60% of respondents view marketing more negatively than a few years ago and agreed that advertisers “don’t treat consumers with respect,” bombarding them with too many messages. Although few welcome the idea of government restrictions, establishing some guidelines isn’t beyond the realm of possibility in the name of protecting kids — always a popular applause line. Commercial Alert and others have been aggressive on this front, railing against fast-food ads targeting a startlingly obese generation of moppets, PBS and Comcast’s plans to launch a commercial channel for preschoolers, and the ad-supported news venture Channel One being piped directly into schools. This isn’t to say pitchfork-wielding peasants will march on Madison Ave. any time soon. My suspicion is that self-reported ad-aversion mirrors polling on media sex and violence — namely, ask people if there’s too much and they’ll concur, but it doesn’t motivate many to actually vote with their remote and change channels. Nevertheless, there are signs of growing restlessness with ham-fisted marketing tactics, from Sony and Major League Baseball’s aborted attempt to place on-field “Spider-Man 2″ ads to the groans regularly elicited by the pre-movie spots that filmgoers — an utterly captive audience — are compelled to endure. As dueling lawsuits over ad-placement in “The Apprentice” revealed, product integration has become extremely lucrative, with sponsors being asked to pay as much as $5 million for the privilege. In a live-for-today business, it’s difficult to quibble with that kind of math. Still, the bottom line is nobody knows what causes viewers to skip a program. Has NBC’s splashy “The Contender” lacked punching power because the boxing sequences were so overproduced that fight fans feel manipulated — from each jab’s amplified “Pow!” to Sly Stallone’s exaggerated reaction shots — or was the premise simply too narrow? Probably a little of both. As a consumer, however, it clearly bugs me when Trump flogs his sponsors, just as I resent local radio anchors seamlessly segueing to read ad copy or being force-fed Coke ads in the multiplex. And while it’s doubtful that people stay away entirely, my guess is those sensitive to such excesses tune in, flip over and buy tickets less often. So let’s have that discussion about tykes and ad-fauxmercials without obscuring the broader implication for marketers and the adults they yearn to reach. Because somewhere along this poorly marked path lies a crossroads where the ad invasion triggers ad avoidance — transforming “Let the viewer beware” into “Let the sponsor be warned,” followed by a less dramatic utterance of the career-deflating phrase: “You’re fired.”
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