Short memory on TV history Hype: NBC' showing of "Schindler's List" tonight isn't exactly as "unprecedented" as the network claims.


February 23, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN STAFF SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

This is a story about television history, a certain kind of hype and a movie being broadcast on television tonight almost for the first time and almost commercial-free.

The story began last month at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, Calif., where Warren Littlefield, president of NBC Entertainment, stood at a podium beneath a huge NBC peacock logo. He announced to an audience of reporters that NBC would make the first network broadcast of "Schindler's List," Steven Spielberg's 1993 Academy Award-winning film about the Holocaust, with Ford Motor Co. as the sole sponsor.

It is one thing for Littlefield to try and sell a programming announcement as news through the trappings of a news conference. Network television does that all the time in its quest for publicity. But Littlefield wanted more this time.

He wanted history.

This broadcast is historic, he said, and used the word "unprecedented" several times. And he wanted NBC and Ford to be congratulated for airing and sponsoring the film, though neither is sacrificing anything, and in fact have much to gain through their association with "Schindler's List."

"We really congratulate Ford for becoming our partner in a unique and extraordinary way to put this phenomenal film on television," Littlefield continued. "It's unprecedented that an entire 3 1/2 -hour network broadcast is sponsored by one advertiser and has no advertising breaks throughout the entirety of that movie." NBC continues to make the claim; the laudatory articles have never stopped.

Movie packaging

But media historians say the truth is somewhat different.

Not only is there precedent, but NBC's packaging of "Schindler's List" borrows from some of the very oldest broadcast strategies for disguising matters of commerce as public service, in hope of gaining praise and prestige.

"Whether they are fudging it intentionally or whether they believe their own hype, in either case, calling it unprecedented is not an accurate statement," says Jon Kampner, author of "The Man in the Shadows: Fred Coe and the Golden Age of Television," a biography of an important producer of early television dramas.

The sole sponsorship concept being trumpeted for "Schindler's List" was pretty much standard practice for quality drama in the '50s. It led to broadcasting keystones such as the Kraft Television Theatre and Hallmark Hall of Fame movies. While those productions did carry commercials, they were often clustered to be less disruptive -- a network strategy for trying to both make money and win respect.

"It's hardly new, hardly terrific or any of the other things NBC is claiming," says Douglas Gomery, a media historian at the University of Maryland. "You can go back to the Communications Act of 1934 that said broadcasters must operate in the public interest. When the radio networks couldn't sell ads, they put on what were called sustaining shows. They were never sponsored, never interrupted. Orson Wells' 'War of the Worlds' is probably the most famous example. The practice continued on a regular basis with network television in the 1950s and '60s."

Precedent from CBS

The most direct precedent for tonight's presentation comes from CBS and its two productions in 1966 and 1985 of Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."

The 1966 production by David Susskind was postponed twice because CBS was having a hard time finding sponsors, according to reports of the time. But the Xerox Corp. stepped forward as sole sponsor and agreed to broadcast only six one-minute commercials during the telecast, despite having paid for 12. The commercials were low-key, institutional messages rather than hard-sell, and they were grouped together at the beginning, the middle and the end.

One-third of all televisions in use that night were tuned to CBS, making it a moderate ratings success in the old days of a three-network universe. "Death of a Salesman" finished 63rd out of 106 prime-time programs that week, sandwiched by "My Favorite Martian" and "Lassie." The No. 1 program was "Bonanza" on NBC -- the program with which "Death of Salesman" had gone head to head.

CBS also brought the Broadway revival of the play to television in 1985. Again, one sponsor, institutional ads only and local stations were not allowed to sell any ads or run any promotions. The only debatable difference is about what constitutes a commercial.

Two intermissions

John J. Agolia, president of NBC Enterprises and the person responsible for bringing "Schindler's List" to the network, says there will be two "intermissions" of about 90 seconds each tonight during which viewers will see a title card on their television screens carrying only the words "Schindler's List" and the blue Ford logo.

Is that a commercial?

Agolia contends it is not.

Advertising professionals say the title card with only a corporate logo will serve the same ends for Ford that a highly effective, traditional commercial might in other circumstances.

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