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NBC LETS VIEWERS SPEAK THEIR MINDS

The Washington Post

You might expect Ralph Nader to denounce “the Nielsen rating tyranny” that rules network television, but you probably wouldn’t expect a television network to give him free air time to do the denouncing. However, NBC has done that as part of a new series of image-enhancing spots keyed to the theme “NBC, Tuned in to America.”

Consumer advocate Nader is one of nine viewers who’ll be seen in the 30-second announcements that begin airing next Wednesday in prime time, and eventually will be seen throughout the day. Each spot consists of one or two people holding forth, spontaneously and in their own words, on the subject of television.

Other participants include humorist Steve Allen, former astronaut James Irwin, national PTA President Ann Kahn, and Donna Deen and Dorothy Swanson, co-founders of Viewers for Quality Television. Much of what they say is positive and innocuous, but some is negative and trenchant.

That makes the campaign highly unusual in the annals of network self-promotion. “We wanted to have people offer their observations and ideas of what television is all about,” said Frank Pintauro, NBC vice president in charge of the project. “We wanted to come across as being very audience-responsive.”

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One thing that networks always have been criticized for is not listening to the voices and protests of viewers, only to the data of ratings services. These spots make NBC look nobly open-minded.

However, Nader believes NBC’s open-mindedness isn’t exactly open-ended.

“It’s really fascinating what they selected out of the 40 minutes that we filmed,” Nader said. “They didn’t use the real revolutionary stuff that I said. They showed an unerring instinct for taking the most bland of all the material.”

Nader said he agreed to take part because “I figured some of the things I wanted to say would come across,” and said of NBC and its project, “I couldn’t quite figure out what their game is.”

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Pintauro said NBC submitted transcripts of all the planned Nader spots to the consumer advocate once they had been edited for broadcast. “He approved them all,” Pintauro said.

M. S. Rukeyser Jr., the NBC executive vice president whose office of corporate communications came up with the campaign, said, “Blandness was not on our minds. We wanted a provocative spot that gets people’s attention. We didn’t go to all this trouble to be bland.”

How much trouble? NBC hired director Norman Seef, who did those terrific Pizza Hut testimonial spots, to direct the filming of the NBC messages. Very soft-sell. Very classy. Especially for a network.

One of the incidental revelations of the campaign is what a skilled TV communicator ex-astronaut Irwin is. When this guy looks you in the eye and lays it on the line, you perk up and take notice. In one of his spots, he talks about the effect of television’s coverage of the Challenger disaster.

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William R. Hutton, executive director of the National Council of Senior Citizens, also took part, as did Amy Marotta, a New Jersey school teacher. NBC said the participants received no compensation from the network.

Among the remarks included in the spots:

“If you think television is doing anything wrong or having any kind of negative effect on your child . . . turn the damn set off for a while. . . . Human beings are more important than their images on television.”

--Steve Allen

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“Even if television had nothing but perfect programs on it, I think it would be important for people to limit the amount of television that young children watch.”

--Ann Kahn

“When the quality isn’t there, television can be mind-numbing. When the quality is there, it can be breathtaking.”

--Dorothy Swanson

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One of Nader’s spots will be the one that kicks off the yearlong campaign during the broadcast of “Highway to Heaven” next Wednesday--at, according to the schedule, 8:56:33 p.m. What Nader says may seem “bland” to him, but when you consider a commercial network has voluntarily given him the time and space to say it, NBC comes out looking awfully good.

“What needs to be done is to take all those frustrated great script writers and programmers and producers,” Nader says in Spot No. 1, “and give them greater elbow room, which all spells greater respect for the limitless potential of the American people to raise their expectations and demand a higher quality TV.”


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