The National Assn. of Broadcasters estimated Thursday that 54 million viewers on Monday night saw its 30-second commercial in which former CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite praised so-called "free" TV.
The ad, which ABC, NBC, CBS and an estimated 1,000 TV stations aired at the start of prime time, according to the NAB, marked the start of two major broadcast industry campaigns to counter the inroads of cable TV in the last few years.
However, the NAB commercial was vaguely worded. It saluted "free," or over-the-air, television, but did not criticize cable, for which subscribers pay a monthly fee averaging $24 for basic service.
With a theme of "Free TV . . . an American Tradition," the ad opened with Cronkite advising viewers that "what you are watching is called free television. . . ."
"Through your free-TV window," he continued, "you've been witness to triumph and tragedy, to love, laughter, learning, life. It's offered free to all--even the cable systems that carry it.
"Imagine the impact if it were gone. Join us in the coming months as we celebrate and stand watch over free TV."
A cable industry executive who declined to be identified said Thursday he thought the ad was part of an NAB effort to influence Congress to adopt "must-carry" legislation requiring cable-TV operators to carry over-the-air television signals on their channels.
The NAB and its cable counterpart, the National Cable Television Assn., have been trying to work out a deal on such legislation that they then would suggest to Congress.
Monday's Cronkite commercial was produced by CBS for the NAB's Free Television Task Force.