The Sponsor
Ads on the air

by Joyce Nelson

from Jump Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, p. 36
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

Erik Barnouw, The Sponsor: Notes on a Modern Potentate (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), 220 pp., $13.50.

Erik Barnouw's latest book, The Sponsor, is a fascinating and important work which provides a useful introduction to the subject of advertising's role in radio and television. The book is filled with historical detail and anecdotes, the kind of material which comes from work inside the industry. Barnouw is, of course, known for his three-volume History of Broadcasting in the United States, its one-volume spin-off Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television, and Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film. The book-jacket for The Sponsor informs us that he "directed programs for various advertising agencies before joining CBS as a writer and editor" in 1939. Nevertheless, Barnouw assesses the pervasive influence of advertising with an undisguised and deep concern. As the leading historian of U.S. broadcasting, he is able to fully document the growth and impact of the broadcasting sponsor — the "potentate of our time."

The book is divided into three sections entitled Rise, Domain, and Prospect. The first section traces the rise of the sponsor to his present state of eminence. In the second section, Barnouw examines sponsorship's pervasive impact on TV programming, especially network programming. The last section assesses the repercussions in society which result from sponsor dominance and the implications which such advertising power may have for the future. Of the three sections, I found the first one the most interesting, perhaps because it is here that Barnouw  — the historian — is most lively and engaged. He provides a careful and detailed documentation of the events and circumstances which laid the basis for advertising as the business of broadcasting.

In the first section, Barnouw reminds us that the sale of air-time, much less the sale of audiences to sponsors, was clearly not born with broadcasting but emerged from specific events and decisions which can be charted. Before World War I, radio was both a transmitting and a receiving device. It was primarily in the hands of amateur "ham" radio operators and a few professional experimenters. With the onset of war, all amateur operators were ordered off the air and required to seal their equipment in the interests of national security. According to Barnouw, this had lasting repercussions: "Radio became an arcane military activity, on which the public was forbidden to trespass."

But more importantly, the infant electronics industry received lucrative army and navy contracts to develop equipment for the war effort. These contracts made companies like Westinghouse, General Electric, and AT&T into "young giants," controlling almost all of the electronics patents. One other company — United Fruit — had been using wireless since the turn of the century to coordinate activities on its scattered plantations and to direct the traffic of its banana boats. Not surprisingly, after the war these four companies got together to form the Radio Corporation of America, primarily to gain control over international message-sending operations.

Barnouw explains that after the war, radio seemed to be a dormant medium until someone in the industry got the brilliant idea that the general public might be interested in buying radio-receiver sets, if a programming service were provided. The electronics industry envisioned big profits from the sale of equipment — with a programming service acting as the enticement for purchase. This decision to eliminate the transmitting capability from the equipment (in effect, the technical censorship of two-way analogue communication) had widespread implications for both the broadcasting industry and our notions of mass media.

In 1920, radio station KDKA in Pittsburgh (a venture of the four companies who had formed RCA) went on the air as the industry's first enticement for purchasing radio receivers. KDKA offered coverage of the presidential election returns, radio concerts, speeches by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, broadcasts from local churches, a prizefight, and talks on various subjects. Meanwhile, the assembly lines of the industry were turning out receivers to meet the anticipated demand. Two years later, AT&T revealed its plan to open a new kind of radio station, one which Barnouw sees as a significant step in the rise of the sponsor. AT&T's new station, which would eventually become part of a nationwide chain of stations, would be engaged in "toll broadcasting." What AT&T envisioned was a chain of "radio-telephone stations" which they likened to phone booths.

"Just as one entered a phone booth, paid a fee, and talked to a friend, so anyone who might want to address the general public would be able to visit an AT&T station — a phone booth of the air — pay a fee, and address the world."

The company had no plans to provide programs of their own but would instead "provide the channels through which anyone with whom it makes a contract can send out their own programs." As Barnouw states, "It was the first proposal for putting air time on a for-sale basis."

AT&T's first toll station, WEAF in New York City, opened on August 16, 1922, and by the end of the first six months of operation, it had won 16 sponsors of programs. The first sponsor (August 28) was the Queensboro Corporation, which paid $50 for a 10-minute period used "to extol suburban living and promote the sale of apartments in a housing complex in Jackson Heights, Long Island." Within three weeks of the broadcast, the company's sales amounted to $127,000 — which they attributed directly to the 10-minute broadcast. They bought four more time spots right away. The rest, as they say, is history.

Barnouw also documents the maneuvers by which "educational" radio stations were dispossessed through allocation of the spectrum and through the gradual and false distinction made by the industry between "public" broadcasting and "real" broadcasting. In a later section, he illustrates the return of "trade-name publicity" through the sponsorship of "culture" on PBS-TV channels.

But Barnouw is most interesting when writing of the early years of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. NET had proven to be virtually the only outlet for antiwar, anti-Administration expressions of the dissident counterculture during the late Sixties. Certainly, the fortress of network prime time had been largely impenetrable. But through programming like "Black Journal," "NET Journal," "The Creative Person," "Inside North Vietnam," NET had allowed the occasional expression of other views. Ironically, these programs coincided with a report by the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television which recommended government support of public television, a report issued in 1967. Barnouw writes:

"There was surprise when President Johnson, intent on maintaining a war consensus, embraced the Carnegie plan and encouraged its rapid progress through Congress. It became law in November 1967. Reasons for his interest were perhaps reflected in subsequent actions. As chairman of the new Corporation for Public Broadcasting he appointed Frank Pace, Jr., a former Secretary of the Army and a former chief executive officer of General Dynamics — a pillar of the military-industrial complex. Chairman Pace expressed enthusiasm for his new post and said he had already commissioned research on an important idea — how public television might be used for riot control" [p. 64].

Barnouw is also fascinating when writing of the fate of the independent documentary filmmaker, who has been effectively "squeezed out" of commercial network broadcasting by both the structure and the role of the sponsor. He points out that the TV sponsor has been wary of documentaries at least since 1953 when Edward R. Murrow's "See It Now" series began dealing with McCarthyism. The sponsor was Alcoa. According to Barnouw,

"The programs polarized public opinion and brought on Alcoa a flood of vituperative mail, pressure from dealers, denunciations from columnists. The mail ran five to four against Morrow, but Alcoa held firm. A year later — in 1955, when the hubbub had subsided — Alcoa withdrew its sponsorship, explaining that an increasingly competitive market called for a shift from institutional advertising to sales promotion … In the end the much-discussed Alcoa ordeal — its 'years of sitting on the hot-seat,' as Sponsor magazine called it — made most sponsors wary of documentaries, particularly when produced by a free-thinking entity like the Murrow unit" [pp. 51-52].

Thus it was that the networks themselves, in 1960, decided to schedule only their own documentary productions made by their own in-house units. But the networks themselves are made up of affiliated stations across the country, affiliates which can preview any controversial program several days before telecast and decide whether or not to carry it. These affiliates are free to invite anyone, including sponsors, to sit in on the closed-circuit previews. Such previews may lead to last-minute sponsor withdrawals, as in the case of the CBS documentary "The Guns of Autumn," written and directed by Irv Drasnin, and scheduled for September 5, 1976.

"By late August the six minutes allotted to commercials were sold. But the announcement of the program had made the National Rifle Association apprehensive; it alerted its one million members, warning them that their 'right to bear arms' might be jeopardized if the program turned out to be anti-hunting." When CBS arranged its coast-to-coast closed-circuit preview for affiliates, gun-club members arranged to sit in and soon unloosed a flood of letters and phone calls on scheduled sponsors as well as on CBS … All sponsors except the Block Drug Company, which was represented by two 30-second spots, withdrew their commercials. The gaps were plugged with the filler used for such emergencies — 'public service announcements.' … The sponsor withdrawals did not affect the program, but clearly created intra-industry pressures … Films like 'The Guns of Autumn' … would not be likely to appear again" [pp. 136-37].

As this book makes evident time and again, sponsors want their messages to appear in the most favorable environment that programming can provide. In other words, they always go with the demographics and avoid the controversial. As Barnow writes in a footnote:

"It should be noted that 'controversial' issues are highly changeable. In the 1950's advertisers readily asserted that they could not afford to have their products known as 'Negro products.' This influenced programming and commercials. By the 1970's Negro purchasing power was considered formidable, and black participation in commercials and programs had become mandatory. Behind these shifts was one unchanging element: the assumption that merchandising factors must determine editorial policy" [p. 50].

The Sponsor is full of lively evidence and will surely be a resource for further writing about the broadcast industry. It makes a fine companion piece for such works at Stuart Ewens' Captains of Consciousness, Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, and Tony Schwartz's The Responsive Chord — all of which deal with advertising from slightly different vantage points. As far as I can recall, however, Barnouw is the only one of these writers who points out that

"for tax purposes the cost of making and showing commercials is generally deducted as a business cost — which means that the citizen is in effect subsidizing much of the barrage of argumentation aimed at him."