Tuned In

Robo-James' Time Machine: They Were Still the One

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It’s almost fall, which means that promos for new fall shows are starting to reach a crescendo. But one thing that we’ve lost amid all the multimedia advertising is what used to be a network staple: the fall-season promo reel. Above, see an example from the ABC “Still the One” campaign in 1977.

What’s most notable about this commercial, designed to get people to watch ABC, is what it’s missing: scenes from 1977 ABC programming. It opens with 30 seconds of historical ABC clips (the “We’ve been together since way back when” part; it was about to celebrate its 25th anniversary as a broadcast network)—Batman, American Bandstand, The Flying Nun. And then—it just goes kind of zoo-ey. Lots of images of the number 1! People in the streets, giving thumbs up! Football! Cable cars! Sunglasses! A cop who looks like he might be in the Village People!

My first instinct would be to look at the ad as a relic of an unsophisticated time in TV marketing, a kind of Underpants Gnomes theory of building an audience. (1. Cable cars! 2. ?; 3. Viewers!) But that thinking may be unsophisticated in itself.

Getting people to watch your TV shows in 1977 was simply a different job from what it is in 2011. Today, if you’re trying to get an audience, you’re asking them to select from many more different options. First, you’re convincing them to watch TV in itself, rather than download a movie or play a videogame or go online (not to mention older options such as reading). Second, you’re asking them to choose your programming from among dozens of channels—if not watching it live, then recording it and watching, hopefully, soon. So it makes sense in today’s environment that you advertise the show, which your audience may watch when it airs or may type into their DVR menu.

In 1977, there was one assumption about what Americans would do with their evening. They would watch TV until they went to bed. And, excepting PBS, they would choose from one of three broadcast networks. The idea, then, was that ABC, CBS and NBC had the whole pie to themselves. The only way of increasing that pie was for more Americans to be born, and as for decreasing it—what, people weren’t going to watch TV? Ha ha! So the battle was over which of them would get the biggest slice.

In that kind of dynamic, it may have made more sense to advertise your network itself instead of, or in addition to, its shows. In case you forget, let Grandpa James remind you: back in that day, your typical viewer would change the channel by physically getting up and—chunk-chunk—turning a knob. (We’d also tie an onion to our belt, which was the style at the time.) So if you got a viewer to tune to your channel to start the evening, the odds were better that viewer would stay there.

All of which is to say, sure, you’d want to attract viewers to your shows. But you might also want to attract them to the general aura of your brand, reinforcing that brand to viewers who were, after all, already watching you at that moment. In the 1970s, that brand was: ABC! Young! Fun! Sexy!

I have to say it worked for them, at least in the Poniewozik household. When I make myself think of 1970s TV from my childhood, the first thing that comes to mind—excepting a few Norman Lear sitcoms or M*A*S*H—is almost invariably ABC shows: Three’s Company, Happy Days, The Six-Million-Dollar Man, Mork and Mindy and so on. I’m not even sure that I actually watched more ABC programming than any other network, but as far as my memory’s concerned, it was about 90% of my 1970s viewing.

It’s hard to imagine a kid today growing up to remember any TV brand having that kind of domination of his memories, so I guess, if nothing else, this ad is a reminder that there was a time when a TV network could actually aspire to be The One.

So much for that trip down memory lane. Now let Grandpa James tell you about when rich men rode around in zeppelins dropping coins on people, and the Kaiser stole our number 20!: