Jul 1 2009

Infomercials Amok

Paid programming a win-win-lose for owners, marketers and the public

When critics talk about “saving journalism,” the image one gets is of ink-stained toilers bringing important truths into the light of public scrutiny. But this bears little relation to most people’s experience of news media. For one thing, most people get their news from TV, not generally the poster child for journalism worth saving.

Certainly, television has brought us many fine news and public affairs programs. But if we are trying to assess the kind of job TV does informing the public, it seems silly not to acknowledge that informing the public is not mainly what it does. What it mainly does is sell crap.

Moreover, if industry analysts and our own eyes are to be believed, more and new sorts of selling are seen as TV’s way forward in tough economic times. That means product placement, corporate tie-ins and, increasingly, infomercials—perhaps the clearest indication that broadcasters place their own private interests above the obligation to serve the “public interest, convenience and necessity,” understood to be the cornerstone of broadcasting policy since the Radio Act of 1927.

Corporate media disappoint in myriad ways, of course; but what more obvious abnegation of the responsibilities that come with being given access to the public airwaves than to turn around and sell that access to the highest bidder? What clearer expression of abused promise than channel after channel devoted to hawking hair’s removal or its regrowth, rather than to educational, artistic or political content?

It’s nothing new, certainly. Many programs in the early days of radio and TV were basically advertising vehicles with some entertainment attached. As the media matured, the FCC began to crack down, eventually limiting the amount of advertising that networks could run to 16 minutes per hour. The pendulum swung back with the deregulatory ’80s and the birth of cable, which seemed to promise a limitless media landscape. The FCC threw out the 16-minute rule in 1984, and relaxed deceptive ad guidelines in 1985. By 1988, the Chicago Tribune (11/2/88) could report that “extended ads, identified as such or not, have become staples on many cable TV systems and small TV stations.”*

The current scenario, then, of ever more program-length ads, at all hours of the day, is not exactly one of a pristine landscape being encroached upon. Still, inasmuch as there’s any philosophical debate going on in media policy, those who successfully argued that the “trusteeship” model of media ownership was outmoded, and should be replaced with a “marketplace” model, didn’t contend—not out loud, anyway—that they were changing the goal of serving the public interest, only the means. They should be called on to explain how infomercials would proliferate in a media world where service to the public, in any recognizable sense of the term, was paramount.


Reporting on infomercials generally consists of matter-of-fact explanations of how they “work”—to sell products and to meet the needs of broadcasters.

With the recession forcing big companies to cut ad budgets, companies like TeleBrands Corp., maker of the “PedEgg foot-care product,” found they could buy “cheaper ad spots on more popular networks, which meant that infomercials could air at better time slots with more viewers,” explained the Wall Street Journal (5/11/09). Another plus: “Some of the companies using direct-response television ads say they’re reaching consumers at a time when many people are jobless or spending more time at home, watching more television.”

The standard account contains an admixture of attention to the persuasive power of the ads themselves, and concerns about their potential deceptiveness. “We’ll never be able to stop you from falling for an infomercial,” the New York Times (4/8/06) once counseled readers. “But as you feel yourself about to get sucked in, try to remember what to watch out for.”

Indeed, outright deception is one aspect of the phenomenon that has received regulatory attention; most program-length ads now include the tip that “results described” are “not typical,” or somesuch. Bigger questions, like whether half-hour juicer ads qualify as an acceptable use of the public airwaves in the first place, remain unbroached, including by the press.

One exception was a 1991 piece by the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Epstein (“Prime-Time Invasion of the Infomercials,” 1/14/91). Epstein cited a survey of commercial television operators in which nearly 60 percent said that infomercial income is “bad” for television, while nearly half said “the money they hate to make” would be growing in the future.

Epstein attributed the growth of the trend, “despite the ambivalence” of broadcasters, to “simple economics” —infomercials make easy money for operators at low cost. But in truth it requires a combination of economics, public awareness and public policy to make it possible. Research indicates that among the most significant factors in a station’s use of infomercials was “audience complaint” (Journal of Media Economics, vol. 10, No. 1, 1997)—further suggestion that for these owners, it’s not a matter of providing people with what they want, but of seeing what they will tolerate.

By covering program-length ads, like other media developments, primarily as a business story, and interviewing primarily station owners, corporate media perpetuate this confused presentation of infomercials as both a last resort and nothing to be ashamed of. Fox became the first major network to carry a schedule of paid programming in January, replacing two hours of Saturday morning cartoons. They emphasized that it was a stopgap measure, though their “reassurance” was somewhat less than reassuring (Daily Variety, 11/24/08):

Long term, the net hopes to seal deals with major marketers to create more traditional-looking programming that weaves in advertising messages. “These are hopefully not infomercials,” said Fox Networks Group chairman Tony Vinciquerra. “These will be longform programs that highlight their product. In that regard, it will have a little better quality.”


Clearly, decisions about what airs on the public airwaves ought not be left solely to owners’ notions of “quality,” or their “simple economics”. But the FCC, the main entity charged with looking out for the public good, has thus far shown little interest in distinguishing ShamWow from Shakespeare on the public’s behalf.

But don’t say the agency is unaware of the problem. The FCC’s website offers guidelines “to help protect potential investors in wireless telecommunications services from being defrauded by unscrupulous promoters.” Under “Common Warning Signs” is helpfully explained: “Another favorite tactic for luring investors is via television or radio infomercials. Don’t trust a stranger!”

* Cable operators, not constrained by all of the traditional standards that govern broadcast, are nonetheless required to set aside up to 15 percent of their channels for leased-time deals, where programmers pay to have their shows air, rather than the operator paying a content provider. Meant to encourage a wider range of programming—including by smaller, independent producers—in reality, “the space largely is used for infomercials and home shopping” (USA Today, 11/28/07).