Internet marketing advocates should think about sending flowers to Janet Jackson, whose “wardrobe malfunction” in January appears to have triggered in broadcasters a flight from risqué programming.
In the wake of nipplegate and Bono’s surprising “F—— brilliant!” remark during the Golden Globes, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) have said they will more strictly enforce broadcast decency standards and will even consider revoking radio station licenses when new, beefed-up anti-obscenity rules are transgressed.
The Feds’ aggressive language has clearly succeeded in scaring broadcasters on the decency issue. CBS — which aired the offending boob — and the National Football League (NFL) have vehemently disavowed the Super Bowl incident. More recently, the FCC fined Clear Channel nearly $500,000 for numerous on-air comments made by crude DJ Howard Stern, whose show the broadcaster then dropped from its stations.
“Mr. Stern’s show has created a great liability for us and other broadcasters who air it,” Clear Channel President John Hogan told the Associated Press. “The Congress and the FCC are even beginning to look at revoking station licenses. That’s a risk we’re just not willing to take.”
Further crackdowns appear imminent. All in all, it would appear television and radio may be heading into a spiral of neo-Victorian morals. What will become of network TV’s audiences as its programming gets more insipid? Could broadcasting’s loss be the Internet’s gain?
Nielsen Media Research confirmed last fall that the coveted young male demographic, the main audience for the naughtier forms of programming, is already beating the retreat from television. Some are now suggesting broadcast media’s new morality could contribute to this trend, creating an added windfall for digital media as young men look for spice on cable and the Web. After all, the decency crackdown comes as the Internet — which is experiencing growing broadband penetration — is more ready than ever to enable TV-like experiences.
The Edgy Medium of Choice
Advertisers and agencies have frequently gone to the Web with material that for one reason or another wouldn’t fly on television. When creative agency Fallon Web-launched its now legendary series of films for BMW, one of the draws of the Internet was the lack of regulation and oversight there.
Said Kevin Flatt, Fallon’s interactive creative director, “You couldn’t necessarily show what the cars are capable of on TV. This is because of the time limitation and also because when you watch car commercials on TV, normally they don’t show people breaking laws, doing unsafe things.”
BMW’s 2002 effort was at the vanguard. Automotive companies are doing a lot of unsafe things with their Web-only ads these days. Mazda agencies DMC and Sarkissian Mason released spots showing their client’s cars break dancing, crashing and flattening disobedient children between folding rear seats; a viral spot from Toyota depicts a Tacoma truck being pushed from a cliff; and Ford has riled animal lovers with an ad that shows its Sportka model killing a pigeon and another, supposedly unauthorized, spot showing the car’s sunroof decapitating a cat.
Among the latest blue chip advertisers to take a dangerous campaign idea to the Internet is Burger King, whose porn-spoofing subservientchicken.com garnered 46 million hits within a week of its launch last month. The Web site, created by Crispin Porter + Bogusky, mimicked adult-oriented cam sites to pitch the fast food chain’s TenderCrisp chicken sandwich.
“The Web has for some time been a place where people interested in any particular type of entertainment or content can find it,” said Fallon’s Flatt. “That creates a ‘consenting adults’ type of environment. There are a lot of things you can do online that are freer, and it’ll continue to go that way.”
Forrester lead analyst Jim Nail concurs, saying the decency standards would seem to logically lead to more Internet use.
While it seems a logical conclusion, no one can say for certain whether the new moral mandate rippling through broadcast media is actually contributing to the exodus of young TV audiences — particularly men — to the Internet.
It’s a media consumption shift that’s happening anyway, for many reasons. These include the rise of DVRs, the improvement in broadband-oriented content online, and the entrenchment of media habits in people that grew up with the Web as just another medium.
Money Follows Eyeballs… Right?
Despite the migration of twenty and thirty-somethings to digital media, agencies and analysts are dubious about the prospect that TV dollars will follow them in the short term. Television has been pronounced endangered before, yet the network upfront had a record season last fall (though young men were already disappearing then), and the early numbers for this year appear to favor TV programmers. For example, the children’s upfront last month reportedly saw prices rise by as much as 20 percent over last year.
From one point of view, the strength of the children’s upfront reinforces the notion that television is turning into a kiddie medium, a place for the pre-literate to spend time until they’re capable of the kind of media self-determination the Internet demands.
Jupiter Research analyst Niki Scevak acknowledges the various trends that appear to be drawing 18- to 34-year-old media consumers to the Internet, but doesn’t believe they’re being pushed there by puerile TV programming.
“In terms of the edgier creative and the opportunity for that, we are seeing some activity on the Internet, but I don’t think events on TV are driving increased interest there,” said Scevak.
Fallon’s Flatt is similarly reluctant to draw direct correlations between the failings of broadcast media and the good fortunes of the Internet, though he does believe a change in media spending is underway.
“The phone has been ringing quite a bit with [clients expressing] more interest in doing things online,” said Flatt. “[but] I wouldn’t say that it’s because of TV that everyone’s going to the Web.”
It may be that advertisers — unwilling to give up on TV’s reach and equally reluctant to pass on the Web’s opportunity — are resigned to spending more money as a whole, on a variety of media. That wouldn’t be a bad thing for either television or the Internet, which in this scenario could theoretically coexist in a status quo holding pattern, sharing a bigger pie until the next media recession.
In the meantime, Jupiter’s Scevak believes online publishers will have to work for every dollar.
“I don’t think the Internet’s growth will be tied to marketers looking at the consumer behavior mix and allocating dollars accordingly,” he said. “I think the onus is on publishers, rather than marketers, to create incentives. In terms of consumer behavior changing, the actual time it takes for ad dollars to follow is a very long time. It’s not a two to three year thing; it’s a thirty year thing.”
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