The Dangers of Bifurcating Your Business
In 2007, ABC News and Charles Gibson squeaked out a victory over Brian Williams on NBC. Both left Katie Couric of CBS a distant third.
When Charles Gibson was a host on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” I liked his loosey-goosey, laid-back demeanor and obvious ease as an interviewer in front of the camera and bantering with Diane Sawyer.
With the switch to ABC’s “World News Tonight,” where he replaced the urbane, upbeat Peter Jennings, Gibson seems to have purposely changed his “Good Morning America” persona. At first he became the kindly country doctor of my childhood—Hop Allison—who used to make house calls.
Lately I find Gibson to be a doleful presence, presiding with all the charm of a funeral director over a program that has morphed into a handmaiden of Big Pharma. The anchor presides over a cavalcade of advertisements for prescription and OTC drugs and other health-related wares while tossing in a little news to give some legitimacy to this seedy enterprise.
Could your business also be a victim of bifurcation—like a big bird flying in ever decreasing circles until it disappears up its own cloaca?
The greatest American newscaster of the modern era was Walter Cronkite. When my father was alive, watching the “CBS Evening News” was a nightly ritual.
Weekday evenings at 6:29 p.m. during the 1960s and ‘70s, my father would glance at his watch, put down his scotch-and-soda and go turn on the television set. “Time for Walter the Cronk,” he would say cheerily.
Everybody loved Walter Cronkite. He was revered as “the most trusted man in America.” Combining seriousness and charm, he was dubbed “the only honest face on TV” by Art Buchwald.
“Walter Cronkite’s consistency and integrity transformed television from a novelty into the primary news source for millions of Americans,” wrote Dan Rottenberg in American Journalism Review. “During Cronkite’s 19-year tenure as anchor of the CBS Evening News, his trademark sign-off, ‘And that’s the way it is,’ became more familiar to many Americans than the Lord’s Prayer.”
This was the heyday of network news, and “CBS Evening News” was the gold standard. It garnered a huge audience of blue-ribbon viewers hungry for information, and provided a platform that enabled top-drawer advertisers to move the right stuff into the homes, offices and garages of the right people.
Cronkite retired in 1981 after 19 years. The accession to his anchor chair by the sweaty—and ultimately discredited—Dan Rather started the long downward spiral of network news.
Today all three of the network news programs are on the skids. Penetration is a paltry 25% of what it was a quarter century ago. Here are the current numbers:
Total Network News Viewers (% of Population)
1980: US Population 221.8MM
CBS 18.5MM (8.3%)
NBC 17.4MM (7.8%)
ABC 15.9MM (7.2%)
2007: US Population 301.2MM
CBS 6.4MM (2.1%)
NBC 8.3MM (2.8%)
ABC 8.4MM (2.9%)
According to the Gallup Organization, the current network news anchors enjoy vast name recognition across America: 84% for Katie Couric, 78% for Charles Gibson and 77% for Brian Williams.
Yet the number of Americans that tune in to watch these celebrities is minuscule and shrinking. This would indicate that something is seriously wrong—either with the anchors themselves or network news.
How Advertisers are Destroying a Business Model
During the week of the New Hampshire primaries, I tracked sponsorship of the leader—”ABC’s World News Tonight,” which ran a total of 74 commercials over five evenings. Of those, 64 commercials, or 86%, were illness-, drug- and health-related. Even the food products (Healthy Choice, Swanson natural broth and Progresso) were pinned to health benefits. The top five categories:
1. Pain (6 products): Ester-C (2x), Requip, Aleve, Advil, Icy Hot and Bayer (3x).
2. Constipation (5 products): Danon Activa, Amitiza (4x), Miralax (2x), Afrin and Phillips Caplets.
3. Lungs/Breathing (4 products): Spiriva, Advair, Delsym Cough Syrup, Mucinex (2x)
4. Male Penile Problems (4 products): Flomax, Cialis, One-a-Day Men, Levitra.
5. Cardio (3 products): Vytorin (3x), Centrum Cardio (2x), Plavix (2x)
(See the illustration below for the complete list and number of insertions.)
Not only are these products hyped, but also the FDA requires that ads for prescription drugs include a solemn reading of all potentially dangerous side effects. A sampling:
Only your doctor can tell if you have BPH, not prostate cancer. Common side effects of Flomax are runny nose, dizziness and decrease of semen. Upon standing, a sudden drop in blood pressure may occur, rarely resulting in fainting. So when starting Flomax, avoid situations where injury could result. If considering cataract surgery, tell your eye surgeon you’re taking Flomax.
Vytorin is not for everyone, including people with liver problems and women who are nursing, pregnant or may become pregnant. Tell you doctor right away about unexplained muscle pain or weakness, which may be a sign of a rare but serious side effect. Certain medicines or foods may increase your risk of getting this serous side effect. Simple blood tests are needed to check for liver problems.
Requip may cause you to fall asleep or feel very sleepy during normal activities such as driving, or to faint or feel dizzy when you stand up. Tell your doctor if you experience these problems or if you drink alcohol or take medicines that make you drowsy. Side effects include nausea, drowsiness, vomiting and dizziness.
Tell your doctor about your medical conditions and all medications. Ask if you’re healthy enough for sexual activity. Don’t take Cialis if you take nitrates for chest pain, because this may cause an unsafe drop in blood pressure. Don’t drink alcohol in excess with Cialis. Side effects may include headache, upset stomach, delayed backache or muscle ache. To avoid long-term injury, seek immediate medical help if you experience priapism—an erection lasting more than four hours. If you have any sudden decrease in vision, stop taking Cialis and call your doctor right away.
The Dangers of a Bifurcated Business
Virtually all businesses attempt to achieve synergy—a seamless meshing of the various elements and divisions that presents a simpatico front to the world. In synergistic businesses, space ads, direct mail, television commercials and Web presence never contradict one another.
The exception to this corporate philosophy: the media.
In the world of newspapers, magazines and television news, a “Chinese Wall” is mandated to exist between editorial and advertising.
To editors, content is pure. Advertising is dirty (even though it pays everybody’s salaries).
As a result, editors are fiercely protective of their turf and any attempt by advertisers to influence content is considered a heinous crime against the integrity of their journalism.
In the case of network TV news, the content crowd is given a series of editorial time slots into which they can present the day’s happenings in words, pictures, interviews, remotes and file footage. It is complex, highly intense work. And for the most part, they do a good job.
Wrapped in the heady worlds of war, politics, social issues, the environment and international relations, the news people have no interest in the advertising side of the program and are purposely oblivious to it.
The result is bifurcation, whereby the media are driven by two halves—editorial and advertising—each with its own agenda.
What the viewer gets is a dose of news followed by doses of advertisements for drugs and other products that deal with our most intimate bodily organs, functions, fluids and excretions—all designed to play on our innermost fears.
Integrated into many of the commercials are grisly side effects recounted by unctuous voice-over announcers who make sure we do not miss the possibilities of:
Bowel Movements — Gas — Vomiting — Limp Penises — Leg Cramps — Headaches — Nausea — Decrease in Vision — Backaches — Four-hour Erections — Dizziness — Runny Nose — Decrease in Semen — Unexplained Muscle Pain — Sudden Loss of Blood Pressure — Gambling Urges — Fainting —Liver Problems — Chest Pain — Trouble Urinating — Drowsiness — Sexual Urges — Diarrhea — Prostate Cancer — Cataract Surgery — Falling asleep while driving — Upset Stomach — The need to see a doctor right away!
You are socked with one of these grisly litanies four to six times in the course of the half-hour broadcast.
In addition, virtually every network newscast has at least one health-, illness- or accident-related feature, thus pandering to Big Pharma and all their other core advertisers in the field of sickness and health.
Particularly grim was ABC’s five-minute segment on the eve of the New Hampshire primaries that covered 24 hours in the emergency room of Parkland Hospital in Dallas. Among the many horrors shown was vintage black-and-white footage of people crying to remind us that John F. Kennedy was taken to Parkland after his head was blown apart by an assassin’s bullet. We were told a new patient arrives in the Parkland ER every four minutes and the waiting time to see a doctor is 10 hours.
By the end of every program, Charles Gibson’s signature sign-off—“And I hope you’ve had a good day”—sounds positively lugubrious.
The Dwindling Audience for TV Network News
This massive hyping of all these drugs and their side effects has its own side effect—grossing out normal, healthy folks who have abandoned network news in droves, opting to get their news via cable, satellite and Internet.
At the same time, this unholy procession of depressing ads serves to feed the neuroses of what appears to be the core audience: 23 million hypochondriacs consumed with morbid curiosity about sickness and bodily functions—their own and those of others.
On the evening of January 7, Charles Gibson proclaimed that he was presenting a special edition of the program with a single sponsor and limited commercial interruptions. That sponsor turned out to be Pfizer and the two commercials touted a Web site, www.mytimetoquit.com, devoted to helping people quit smoking. The ultimate product was Chantix, a nicotine inhibitor.
The only reason Pfizer would buy out the entire “ABC’s World News Tonight” production is if demographics showed that the core audience was made up of a huge percentage of smokers—neurotic people happily making themselves sicker.
My bet is that if you innocently ask the typical TV network news viewer, “How are you,” the answer will result in a tedious 25-minute inventory of ills, pains, adverse reactions to drugs and descriptions of recent doctor visits.
Do any other network programs have worse demographics than the evening news?
Curiously, in 2006 Charles Gibson whined to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Gail Shister about the ads on his news program. “When you put on ads mostly for medicines, you’re saying, ‘We want an older audience.’ I would like ads that say, ‘We have a younger audience here.’”
Shister’s retort, “Not likely, Charles.”
Katie Couric told New York Magazine’s Joe Hagan that she hoped her audience was made up of “people who are interested in the world and want to stay connected.” Then Couric added:
But truth be told, I don’t know if those people are in front of the television at 6:30 at night. I hope those that are will find our program compelling, but I don’t quite have them in my mind’s eye.
Now you know who they are, Katie.
Take a good look at your disappearing audience. You, Charlie Gibson and Brian Williams are not the problems.
It’s the bifurcated model you’ve been saddled with. The two halves of your business don’t communicate and, in fact, have contempt for each other.
You’re in a lose-lose situation.