Let History Repeat Itself

Medieval artists in the Dark Ages were mostly oblivious to the achievements of their ancient forebears. They spent an entire era trying to reinvent the styles and techniques that the Greeks and Romans had discovered centuries earlier, but which had been hidden or destroyed in the sacking and plundering that brought an end to the classical age. They succeeded eventually (at which point we start calling it the “Renaissance”), but time and money was spent recovering knowledge that others had already figured out.

Watching the television industry’s attempts, over the last 10 years, to come to grips with advancements in digital and online technologies brings to mind these artists. “Innovations” in multi-platforming, product placement and hyper-branding have been breathlessly introduced as though they’re new ideas. But as something resembling a plan for operating in the digital age finally emerges, one can’t help but ask why we’ve been stumbling for so long, and how many years (and dollars) were wasted by not paying attention to the past.

Sixty years ago, the communication industries were, as they are today, in the throes of uncertainty. In the spring of 1949, the first complete TV season drew to a close and the titans of the old media — print, movies and radio — had serious concerns about the future. The old media companies were a lot better prepared for the new medium than they would be a half century later, however. From their first days in operation, the radio networks were deeply invested in the development of TV, and during the transition their existing station affiliations, stars, inventory and advertising acumen were all put to work making sure that control remained in the hands of the usual suspects.

It’s instructive to look at a few of the programs on the air in 1948-49, when all four networks offered a full prime-time lineup. It might have been even more instructive to have taken a look 15 years ago.

The big hit of TV’s freshman season was The Texaco Star Theater. Fully branded from the title to the catchy commercial/theme song, it used product placement more creatively and entertainingly than anyone has since 1965. Milton Berle sang and joked with guests about Texaco, and the commercials for Texaco, done on stage as comedy interludes, were as entertaining as the rest of the show.

The Kraft Television Theater, a classy anthology of weekly dramas, couldn’t integrate products as easily, but twice each episode two- or three-minute recipe demonstrations (using Kraft ingredients) would appear. Some viewers said they enjoyed the cooking tips more than the show and, one week, critic Jack Gould reviewed the commercials in The New York Times.

It shouldn’t have taken the introduction of the DVR to force the realization that product placement, a tried-and-true technique through the mid-1960s, might again prove to be the only truly reliable way to get audiences to attend to advertising during programs.

WB programs like Coca-Cola Presents Young Americans and Pepsi Smash and brand-laden reality shows like Survivor and The Apprentice emerged in the new century as if they represented something new under the advertising sun. Yet to this day only American Idol’s videos for Ford have come close to achieving the level of clever, entertaining ad integration achieved in the earliest days of TV.

Of all the programs on the schedule in TV’s freshman year, however, Allen Funt’s Candid Microphone was probably the most prophetic. It started on radio in 1947. In August 1948, it moved to ABC TV, then jumped to NBC with a new title, Candid Camera. It would continue, with interruptions, until 2005.

Aside from being the father of a cheap, popular and versatile genre, reality TV, Candid Camera could have served as an instruction book for an industry scrambling for programming that could be repurposed for the Web, mobile phones and other digital devices. Funt — back in the Truman administration — had created the ultimate “multi-platform” program. Not only did the show move effortlessly from radio to TV, but it ran in movie theaters, as part of ad campaigns, and as a regular feature on talk shows like Tonight and The Garry Moore Show. Even HBO, in its early years, offered an adult-oriented version. With its short segments and modular structure, Funt’s 1940s invention would have been perfect for the age of the Internet.
As for integrated advertising, Candid Camera followed many other early broadcasters in making the sponsor’s product a part of the show. An ad could be presented as just another hidden-camera segment, as was the case when Funt executed a cigarette taste test on an unsuspecting prospective buyer. Needless to say, the subject found the Philip Morris to be the best tasting of the bunch.