The utter disdain with which television networks routinely treat their viewers is as baffling as it is appalling. It’s as if these monstrous entities don’t realize that, while cash does not change hands directly between them and the audience, it is that audience that is the ultimate source of their money. Yes, networks collect from advertisers, who pay a fee in exchange for a given network running their promotional spots – widely known as commercials – during programming, but why are these advertisers willing to pay for such a service? It isn’t because Mr Clean is just that desperate to have his shiny bald head seen and appreciated by the masses. Rather, it’s because the corporation that produces Mr Clean (and a myriad other products) believes that if they spend a little money having that polished beauty displayed now, a lot of money will come back to them later. And for the most part, that’s a sound strategy – except that it doesn’t work if no one (or not enough) in the viewing audience then drives down to their local supermarket to buy Mr Clean. Without those purchases, it just isn’t worth it to put Mr Clean on the air, and the network loses advertising money. This means the real power in television is in the hands of the viewers, and when they become irate over a network practice, they will make their voices heard.
One need look no further than famous political commentator Rush Limbaugh for an example of the impact viewer displeasure can have on those at the top. Radio works in much the same way as television in that it is supported by advertiser money, a fact which Limbaugh learned all too well when he took it upon himself to call political activist Sandra Fluke – who publicly advocated views contrary to Limbaugh’s own – a “slut” on national airwaves. The fallout was devastating, with listeners bombarding Limbaugh with angry calls and e-mails stating that he had gone too far with the personal insult. Fearing massive boycotts, advertisers responded by fleeing the program in droves, and in a matter of weeks Limbaugh’s income stream was threatening to collapse. Desperate to stop this potentially lethal hemorrhage, Rush Limbaugh was forced to apologize on-air to Sandra Fluke, a first for a man who bases his radio personality on pride and arrogance.
And yet, in most cases, networks on television insist on taking this kind of viewer-delivered beating before they will respect the will of their audience. ABC-Disney has already incurred the wrath of their viewers by attempting to cancel the popular daytime soap operas All My Children and One Life to Live, a move that has led to boycotts of the network and its advertisers. They would do well to learn their lesson quickly. In business, time is money, and stubborn network executives without a care for the real source of their income risk losing a lot of time.
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