Critics are prone to evaluate television based on how well the medium delivers upon -- or falls short of -- its noblest aspirations and potential.
Yet as journalists gather in Los Angeles this week for their semiannual preview of new programs, the more pertinent image of television hews closer to its roots as a conduit to help Procter & Gamble peddle soap and General Motors sell cars -- which, with a glut of channels fueling desperation, explains why networks now often seem more creative about milking revenue from their shows than producing them.
Nothing exemplifies this better than Fox's "American Idol," the talent showcase that returns this month despite awkward segments within the show where contestants sipped Coca-Cola or drove around in a Ford for no reason beyond the fact sponsors paid for the privilege.
Moreover, that "American Idol" drew stellar ratings with barely a squawk about crass commercialism suggests this puree of advertising and programming isn't a major concern to viewers, who have either grown indifferent to such excesses or, more likely, been bludgeoned into submission by them.
Anyone who watched college football during the last week was certainly treated to a numbing array of attempts to reach out and pitch someone, from a gratuitous plug for Disneyland during ABC's run-up to the Rose Bowl (Disney owns ABC, so this is called "synergy") to a Texan winning $200,000 at halftime of the Sugar Bowl. The trivia quiz was sponsored by Nokia, which was hard to overlook, since the announcer said "Nokia" about 45 times before a Nokia representative came out to present an oversized check ... from Nokia.
Media watchers occasionally grouse about such things -- the New York Times flagged Fox Sports Net for its integration beginning this week of a beer company's mascot into its round-table program "The Best Damn Sports Show Period" -- but marketing people simply say chill out and have a cold one.
In a world with high-tech recording and commercial-zapping devices like TiVo and Replay, such "enhanced" advertising and marketing schemes are inevitably coming soon to a program near you -- from elaborate product placements to promos inviting viewers to: "See what develops next week, brought to you by Polaroid."
"Consumers know who pays for everything," said Mark Stroman, an executive at Endeavor Marketing Solutions and chairman of PROMAX, an association for media marketing professionals. "They're not stupid. Consumers are much more savvy these days."
Product tie-ins like those mentioned, Stroman maintains, are no big deal to younger viewers and a very big deal to bottom-line-oriented tycoons -- like Viacom President Mel Karmazin -- who tell their troops, "Just show me the money."
In essence, when it comes to getting the word out about shows and finding new ways to cash in on them, the idea is to push as far as possible, so long as people don't begin fumbling for the remote control.
"Promotion and marketing is going to play a much more important role in the future," Stroman said. "If you can't find it, you can't watch it, and if you can't monetize it, nobody cares."
Fox Television Group Chairman Sandy Grushow began his career in marketing, but that might just scratch the surface. In the years ahead, based on the perplexing financial challenges that television faces, being able to convincingly use "monetize" in a sentence could be the logical springboard to higher office.
"The road to the top will start not in programming, but marketing," predicted PROMAX President Jim Chabin, adding that his association's membership (52% female, with an average age of 37) dovetails nicely with the general profile of whom networks and advertisers want to reach.
The prevailing message is not to rule out any avenue by which a show can be "monetized," or translated directly into dollars. Advertising is already being squeezed into new venues with all the finesse of an emcee at a wet T-shirt contest -- from bathroom stalls to every crevasse of "The Best Damn Sports Show," which is pretty much the same thing.
"All these models are changing right now," Stroman noted. "Television has gone from mass marketing to micro marketing."
As the saturation of options splinters ratings, marketing becomes ever more vital -- a dynamic that could mean that TV's next generation of leaders will serve apprenticeships not reading scripts but figuring out how to wring revenue out of the finished product.
CBS' "Survivor" clearly blazed modern trails in weaving products into the program -- from shoes to snacks to cars -- and most unscripted shows have followed suit. This fall, ABC's failed interactive drama "Push, Nevada" opened doors to the scripted arena, representing as much a marketing concept (watch the show, find the clues, play on the Internet, maybe win money) as a TV program -- an experiment sure to be replicated even though the patient died.
"Watch and win" promotions remain a fertile area of exploration, as Fox's "Joe Millionaire" premiered this week with a Las Vegas trip and radio station "money grab" giveaway among its various come-ons.
Still, the mother lode for marketing gurus lies in identifying ways to pocket cold hard cash, from the first-season DVD release of a series with dubious rerun value like "24" to the just-released "too hot for TV" version of the dating show "Blind Date," following in the footsteps of similar videos devoted to "Cops" and "Jerry Springer."
"Blind Date Uncensored" is being sold (only $19.99!) in conjunction with the folks who bring you the highly lucrative "Girls Gone Wild" series, with multiple tapes available, including "Freaks and Weirdos" and "Dates From Hell" editions.
"With the fragmentation of viewing nowadays, you're always looking for additional revenue streams, and this is a real one," said "Blind Date" producer David Garfinkle, noting that the videos and DVDs can yield "tens of millions of dollars if you hit a home run" -- potentially exceeding any profit from the show's more subdued TV exposure.
A preview of the tapes (someone had to do it) reveals plenty of nudity, drunkenness and expletives, without quite venturing into X-rated territory. "It's the stuff that people say, and people do, and you're watching it and going, 'Why?' " Garfinkle said.
The answer, of course, is that fame-seeking contestants are willing to risk looking foolish to market themselves -- making them the ideal infantry, if you think about it, for a TV industry "gone wild."
Brian Lowry's column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at email@example.com.