Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hilmes, “NBC & the Network Idea" : Sponsored and Sustaining Programs and the Balance between Public Service and Generating Profit

In the early years of NBC, the network produced programming content with the hopes that it would eventually be picked up by a sponsor. Eventually, companies realized that it would be easier for them to just produce programming content in conjunction with the networks. At first, this strategy does not seem as though it would lead to an innovation of programming that would also serve the public interest, but the networks approached this in a very interesting way. While programming was heavily influenced by advertising, the network also gave great freedom to the creators and well known stars of the programming content. With greater artistic control, the network was able to produce acclaimed shows such as The Jack Benny Show and RKO Theater that served the public with new and unique programming as well as generating profit for the network. In addition to adding these types of programs that were both entertaining and generated profit for the networks, NBC and CBS aired political and informative shows that were often given free air-time rather than relying on sponsors to foot the bill.

NBC’s strategy works on two levels: first, they are able to profit from sponsored programming while maintaining a level of artistic creativity and freedom that allowed sponsored shows to flourish, and secondly, NBC separated the sponsored programming from the content that allowed them to better serve the public good. By giving free air time to organizations like the Smithsonian, the network was able to serve the public good without involving corporate sponsorships. This last part seems very interesting to me because I am not sure if this would work in today’s highly competitive television climate. Today, there is no such thing as a sustained programming on networks because they are always trying to make a profit. The only examples I can think of are public access broadcasts or some sort of large scale news program in which commercials would become suspended, but in today’s television, networks cannot afford to just hand out air-time if they have the opportunity to sell it at any point. This article from the Museum of Broadcast Communications discusses a recent case in 1990 when a large number of networks aired a cartoon special without advertisements, but this seems to be a rare occurrence.

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