Much like Marx's insight about the nature of capitalist commodities,
television "promotional spots" -- those 10-to-30-second, network-sponsored ads
touting upcoming programs -- might at first glance seem like "trivial" things.
But the television "promo" is only superficially a surface, trivial thing. The
deceptively simple promo spot is in fact a complex, highly structured cultural
product that uniquely combines the languages of art and commerce.
The television promotional spot is a certain kind of advertising, a brief
message produced by or for the network and pertaining to various upcoming
fictional, news, and live or taped "variety" programming, such as game shows or
talk shows, as well as periodic network-produced "specials." Mass communication
and advertising textbooks mention, however briefly, the promotional aims of the
television industry (Eastman, 1993), and the study of advertising itself from a
wide range of theoretical and methodological perspectives (Abernethy & Franke,
1996; Austin & Meili, 1994; Banwari, 1994; Broach, et.al., 1995; Hitchon &
Thorson, 1995; Jhally, 1987; Kemp & MacInnis, 1995; Kervin, 1991; Lanis &
Covell, 1995; Leiss, Kline & Jhally, 1986; Lin, 1993; Moore & Harris, 1996;
Olsen, 1994; Slater, et.al., 1996; Stern, 1994; Stipp & Schiavone, 1996;
Williamson, 1978) is a well-entrenched academic discipline. But I have been
unable to find even a single scholarly study about the television promotional
This lack of attention to television promotionals is surprising when one
considers the near-constant flow of promo spots that air virtually every hour of
every television day. The promo is the television industry's major means of
advertising its own product, thus of advertising itself. Promos constitute a
pervasive element of the audience viewing experience -- and represent an
enormous cost of investment for each network -- yet the promotional spot has, to
date, escaped serious scholarly attention.
AIMS OF THE PRESENT RESEARCH
A comprehensive analysis of any aspect of television as text -- whether of
the promo or the full-length program it advertises -- should, in my view,
account for the television text's dual nature as both symbolic and commercial
product. This paper represents a portion of a much longer explanatory case study
designed to do just that -- to investigate the interrelationships between the
rhetoric, political-economy and ideology of the television promotional spot. In
this paper, I focus primarily only on the political-economy and ideological
quality of network promotionals, with somewhat less attention to the
rhetorical/literary aspects of each pomotional text. I present findings
detailing the relative dollar value of each promo spot in relation to the
nightly prime-time program schedule on ABC, CBS and NBC, and how this financial
or instrumental factor is translated, rhetorically, into the actual content of
each promo text.
I make a case for reading each promo in broadly structural terms, as an
expression of the political-economy of the network, and thus for reading each
promo as ideological expression. In this regard I am focusing on the endcoded
or production side of the text, not how it is decoded (consumed) by audiences
(Hall, 1980). I show how each promo projects its own unique story-line on the
surface level but when analyzed more abstractly, how most promos fall into one
of a handful of what I call ideologic frames. My ideological reading, at the
textual level, stems from an analysis of each promo via Burkean rhetorical
criticism, which searches out "motive-embedded symbols" in the text via a
structural textual analysis of the Dramatic Pentad [Act, Agent, Agency, Scene,
Purpose], and in relation to the text's "representative anecdote," its main
story or plot-line (Burke, 1989, 1969; Foss, et.al, 1991; Cragan & Shields,
1995). The textual-ideological analysis is extended further by placing each
promo into one of three rhetorical frames I devised during this study -- a
network, program, or program-network frame. The particular themes, imagery and
symbols that constitue the surface meaning of any promo (and which are
themselves interesting in terms of the 'cultural stories' they project) are
analyzed in a broader sense, as network marketing devices which resonate with
familiar cultural story-lines, myths and social norms that can be seen to
function as ideology. In this spirit, I offer the following working hypothesis,
which is also the theoretical argument that informs this research:
What we, as viewers, symbolically experience as promo viewers is a
rhetorical object -- a few seconds of highly stylized themes, imagery and
persuasively directed language. The promo advertises not a standard product or
service, but a cultural or symbolic product, whose use-value lies in its
appropriation as "meaning" for a particular viewer, and within a particular
viewing context. But the real ideological work of the promo is to persuade
viewers not only to watch the program being promoted, but to watch the product
and service ads (and other promos) that support and surround that program, and
to go out and buy the advertised products and services. This is, in essence, the
political-economy of the television industry, which is founded on an ideology of
consumption, and which produces a rhetoric and ideology to promote that goal.
But I also argue that what television really promotes, in the last
instance, is not commodities or objects for sale; it certainly does that. What
television actually promotes is, to borrow a phrase from Baudrillard (1996), the
system of objects -- the logic of the consumption ethic itself. In this sense,
the television industry sees the promo spot not as a symbolic property, which is
how viewers confront it, but as a property of the political-economy of
television, as an economic calculus. Thus we can think of themes, story ideas,
images and key symbols -- the language of the promos -- as, from the nextwork's
viewpoint, simply marketing devices reliant upon standardized formulas of
persuasion. The central themes and rhetorical frames utilized in promotional
spots highlight salient cultural ideals and ideological values which the
network, as communicator, attempts to project as somehow representative of the
nature of the full-length program.
While the use-value for the promo viewer is realized in the form of a
"meaning" or meanings -- an essentially symbolic experience -- the use-value for
the network is actually experienced only as an exchange-value: the cost of
producing X-number of promo seconds. This defines the political-economy of the
commercial television network, and the bedrock value upon which its ideological
expression is based. This study, then, examines what we might think of as the
television networks' material mode of production (its political-economy) and the
networks' symbolic mode of reproduction -- the images, themes, major symbols and
meaning-frames that issue forth from the commercial television
production-machine in the persuasive rhetorical and ideological mode of the
program promotional spot.
The study was conducted in hopes of broadening the scope of the critical
analysis of televisual advertising and, in a larger sense, of television itself,
as both text and industry. As Moretti (1983, p. 8) suggests, knowledge of the
"socio-historical context" of a symbolic system is not an "'extra' to be kept in
the margins of rhetorical analysis...Such knowledge furnishes the starting point
for interpretation itself" (cited in Brown, 1987, p. 148).
Studying the links between political-economy, rhetoric, and ideology as
they are mapped within promotional spots sheds light on the promo's central role
in articulating aspects of American televisual culture as an ideological
signifying system. At the same time, it shows how promos serve to advance the
corporate interests of commercial broadcast networks within what Wernick (1991)
calls promotional culture.
I attempt to make sense of a certain kind of popular-culture text within
its generative political-economic framework -- the highly integrated
symbol-producing system that promulgates what I contend is the ideology of
consumption promoted as a natural feature of modern life. Studying television
promotionals within the theorectial frame utilized in this study can offer
valuable insight into how networks translate cultural symbols familiar to a
social system into marketing devices used to promote their particular product
within a system devoted to the capitalist consumption ethic.
I videotaped and analyzed commercial broadcast television promotional spots
for the new (1996-97) Fall primetime season. Promos for new Fall shows, it
was thought, should be especially rich in rhetorically persuasive themes and
imagery because they are commercial advertisements for shows which have never
been seen before. Specifically, I examined:
1) the economic facts and operating practices of the Big Three broadcast
networks [ABC, CBS, NBC]
2) via Burkean "dramatistic"/rhetorical criticism, the key terms of the text
functioning as "motive-embedded symbols" and how these and other factors in each
text produce a "representative anecdote," the story or plot-line that reveals
the underlying essence (Brummett, 1984, p. 162) or "meaning" of the text.
3) different rhetorical frames (labeled network, program, and program-network)
through which each promo was presented, and which contribute to its overall
meaning. The network frame directs viewer attention primarily to the ad itself
as ad; it points to the network itself as the justification for watching a show.
The program frame operates on a more artistic level, positioning the viewer to
attend to the dramatic or "artistic" message of the program itself, as
represented by an actual snippet of of upcoming program. The program-network
frame is a hybrid of the first two, and may contain either actual program
footage, or anecdotal material (such as a skit concocted just for the ad); it
strikes a balance between the more commercial motives of the network frame and
the more artistic aims of the program frame.
4) Finally, I examined how the fundamental story-line of the text (the
representative anecdote), arrived at via the rhetorical analysis, also functions
at a more abstract level as an ideological frame of reference.
It was felt Kenneth Burke's dramatistic-rhetorical method was highly
appropriate as it focuses on motive-embedded symbols in the text, as constructed
by the communicator or rhetor. In this study, the rhetor is the commercial
broadcast network itself, whose chief motive (Webster & Phalen, 1994; Ettema &
Whitney, 1994; Eastman, 1993; Owen & Wildman, 1992) is financial: to develop the
largest possible market-share (audience) for a given product (the program to
which the promotional spot alludes) and by so doing to garner the largest
advertising revenues from program sponsors. Recognizing this as the material
motive of the commercial television network, the examination of promos is
designed to explore the ways in which the symbolic rhetorical motives inherent
in specific promo messages link up with the more obvious material motive of the
networks. In Burke's view, the rhetorical function of communication is apparent
not only in oratory and writing (rhetoric's traditional domains) but in a
variety of both verbal and non-verbal discursive forms, including "sales
promotion" (Foss, et al., 1991, p. 176.)
PROMOTIONAL SPOTS WITHIN THE NIGHTLY PROGRAM SCHEDULE
Figure I (next page) details what we can think of, structurally, as the
political-economy of network promotionals, as they are slotted within the larger
nightly program schedule. I intensively dissected what amounts to less than 12
minutes (11:57) of commercial air-time on a single summer evening. Though
representing only a miniscule portion of the single-evening, three-hour
primetime viewing schedule, these image-rich 11-minutes-and-47-seconds presented
by ABC, CBS and NBC are worth well over $2 million. That represents the
three networks' opportunity cost, their collective cost of investment, or the
amount they gave up in potential ad revenue to promote, instead, their own
upcoming new programs.
As Figure I shows, each network presented promos for at least five (ABC)
and as many as seven (NBC) different new Fall shows during the three-hour
prime-time viewing schedule. Each network (as the Total Runs column shows) chose
to repeat certain promos during that time-slot, and in all but one case (two
promos for the CBS comedy "Pearl"), each promo repeated for the same show was
different (sometimes only slightly). ABC ran three different promo spots for its
new comedy "Spin City"; CBS ran four different spots for the comedy "Ink"; and
NBC devoted four different promo runs to the comedy "Men Behaving Badly." The
repeat promos gives us an idea of which shows the network was pinning its hopes
of high ratings upon. The "Total Time" column shows how many minutes or seconds
were devoted to each show (in terms of all promo runs for that show), and the
"CPM Total" estimates the advertising value of all promo runs for a given show.
To gain an idea of the scheduling format for each promo, the "Prog. Link" column
details which promos ran during which show that particular evening.
Figure I, then, helps flesh out the overall programming and financial
structure within which promotional spots are positioned, and gives us an idea of
the corporate reality -- the political-economy -- behind the promotional spot.
We can see, for example, that the average value of all promo runs on the three
networks just that evening was more than $757,000; that the average total-run
time per network for the three-hour primetime viewing schedule (just for
new-show promos) was just under four minutes; that the average per-second promo
cost that evening topped $3,000!
POLITICAL ECONOMY & IDEOLOGY
Television (Kervin, 1991, p. 235) "engages in ideological work in its use
of ideas and images" and by so doing "offers definitions of reality..." The
"ideological meanings" of a television text are its "social meanings," and
studying these meanings allows the critic to "go beyond a rather insular textual
examination to get at larger social meanings" (Kervin, p. 235). My textual
analysis of promotionals allowed me to see how ideology is embodied in a way
that appears similar to Kervin's formulation: as a combination of what I call 1)
a dramatic/thematic ideological frame in the surface text, and 2) a
social-ideological frame, which projects us 'outside' of the text and into a
"real-world" realm, the larger social/cultural/political frame of reference or
context within which the meaning of the message makes sense.
Political-economy and rhetorical criticism are, I believe, complementary
modes of analysis which can be used to evaluate how ideology operates,
hegemonically, to "naturalize" our understanding of reality (White, 1992;
Barthes, 1972). Political-economy analysis, especially as applied to mass media,
takes into account the "production, distribution, and consumption of resources"
(Meehan, 1993). Meehan (1993, p. 105) argues that the role of political-economic
analysis is its ability to account for "politics and ideology." Corcoran (1984,
p. 131) is sensitive to the relationship between ideology and political economy.
He views ideological analysis as a way of understanding:
[H]ow mediated messages are structured (both as 'texts' and as products of media
organizations), how they function in the securing of hegemonic social
definitions and how communication can be analyzed as a process through which a
particular world-view is represented and maintained.
Any text is a fabric of possibilities, presenting what White (1992, pp.
182-183), borrowing from Morley (1980) calls the text's "ideological
problematic: the field of representational possibilities offered by a text and
the structuration of issues in particular ways." This ideological problematic,
as exhibited in the text's manifest content, corresponds to "that set of
questions or issues which constitute the dominant or preferred 'themes'..."
(Morley, 1980, p. 139, cited in White [1992, p. 182] ).
As applied to the television promotional spot, rhetorical criticism
necessitates linking what we might call the identificatory language
configurations of the promos to their production context. In Burkean terms,
television promotional spots are constructed specifically to persuade an
audience (to gain audience identification) in a matter of seconds, with a
highly condensed, pointed message. In Althussarian terms, the text works to
"interpellate" us (Althusser, 1971; see also, Hall, 1991) as subjects within an
ideological world-view inherent in the text, the text itself being relatively
autonomous of (but nonetheless reflective of and therefore constrained by) its
material conditions of production. Any text positions us as subjects who are
forced to make sense of our own values vis a vis the textual ideology presented;
we are, in this view, ideological subjects, individuals subjected to
socio-cultural norms (via language structures) but not entirely conditioned by
them. Television viewers are conditioned, through years of simply watching, to
understand the representative artistic codes of the medium; this knowledge
combines with existent "sociocultural truisms" in structuring the meaning of the
television text (Gronbeck, 1984, p. 4) and, by extension, the texts that promote
AN EXAMPLE OF HOW THE PROCESS WORKS:
ABC's "Dangerous Minds" -- a program-rhetorical frame
This particular "Dangerous Minds" promo (the second of three for the show
presented during the evening's viewing) fell into a program frame, as its main
content centered more on the artistic message pertaining to the show itself, and
only secondarily on the more commercial message about when it was to debut, at
what time, and so on. The program frame rhetorically positions the viewer to
concentrate primarily on the actual dramatic/thematic content of the show. A
program-frame promo comes closest to what the full-length fictional program
achieves: the presentation of a dramatic story or narrative. The text of this
15-second "Dangerous Minds" promo (worth an advertising value of $50,635) reads
Voice-over: It's the first day of
high school. Rule # 1
Threatening-looking male student,
to teacher (Annie Potts): You so hard? Try a punch!
Voice-over: Show no fear.
Potts, to student: If I'm gonna' punch 'ya,
mister, I'm gonna' punch
you in the pants!
Two black male students,
laughing: Oooooohhhh !
Voice-over: Annie Potts returns to
Dangerous Minds, ABC
Mondays this fall.
Upon close reading, the following cluster terms -- both verbal and visual,
Verbals -- high school; rule number one...show no fear; gonna' punch ya; Potts
returns to network TV; Dangerous Minds. These were words or phrases either
spoken or written. Additionally, the visual elements of the promo that also
qualify as cluster terms are shots of: a high school sign; school bus;
"dangerous-looking" male student confronting the teacher (Potts); she
confronting him with glowering look in a close-up of her face; two black male
students smiling; she smiling; laughing students; kids moving around in
The quality of motivation -- the two terms of the pentad that figure most
prominently in this promo, are: Agent-Act. In other words, we see the agent
(Potts as white school teacher) in a strong-willed light, doing her best to take
control and confront the generally fearful atmosphere portrayed in the text, and
revealed in key terms as outlined above. By analyzing these elements we are then
in a position to state what the representative anecdote, the basic story-line,
seems to be. In this promo, the representative anecdote, whose function is to
"reveal the essence" of a discourse under study (Brummett, 1984, p. 162), is
identified as: Valiant teacher confronts danger in inner-city high school. This
is what ABC, via this 15-second promo, wants the viewer to key into as the
essence -- the essential message -- of this new show: the struggle of a
strong-willed teacher confronting the pressures and dangers of an urban high
school. The network is attempting to sell us, as viewers, on the idea that
watching the series will put us in touch with this symbolic story-line, with
this ideology: the demonstration of strength and strong-willed determination
within a surrounding fearful environment.
We can also identify this symbolic/dramatic theme presented by the network
(what I referred to earlier as the network's symbolic mode of reproduction), in
more properly economic and network-strategic terms, as a marketing device
(construed as a function of the network's material mode of production). The
essential dramatic or "artistic" theme revealed in the promo via the program
rhetorical frame is not the only "message"; the message that is always present
to varying degrees in every promotional spot is a purely commercial one: We at
ABC want you, the viewer, to watch this show, at this particular time: "Annie
Potts returns to network television. 'Dangerous Minds' ABC Mondays this fall."
Finally, the ideological frame indentified in this "Dangerous Minds" promo
was: the Savior-Hero Myth. There is a close connection between the
representative anecdote, which is the essence of the promo's meaning based upon
its story or plot-line, and what I see as its ideological message or frame.
While the representative anecdote can be associated with the surface meaning as
projected in the underlying story or plot-line, what the promo is 'about' (i.e.,
valiant teacher battle chaos in inner city school), the ideological frame, as I
construe it, links this to a more mythical, socio-cultural or 'outer' frame. The
savior-hero myth qualifies as such, and was the larger ideological message drawn
from my analysis of the "Dangerous Minds" promo: the valiant teacher confronting
and engaging danger to save others from some designated blight, thereby
fulfilling, in the process, a hero-function, and portraying to viewers the
ideology of heroism and valor as positive norms.
By demonstrating the text's representative anecdote, we arrive at what I
construe as its dramatically embedded ideology. This is a textually driven or
'inner' ideological frame, manifested in the text by key symbols, the quality of
motivation and the representative anecdote. But this inner, dramatically
embedded ideological frame seems to do its ideological work by calling up yet
another ideological frame, what I call the social-ideological frame of
reference. At this level, we as readers or viewers are projected 'outside of'
the text, to a larger social/political/cultural frame of reference that finds
its referents in real-world events or symbols, or in any number of previous
stories, legends, histories, fables and myths. The social-ideological frame, in
other words, connects the embedded textual or dramatically constructed ideology
of the immediate text with cultural, social, and political themes that have
'come down' to us in many other ways, including through other texts, marking
this as partially an intertextual function.
The ad's injunction, in the omniscient male voice of the voice-over, directs
us, as viewers, to "show no fear." That, the voice tells us, is "rule # 1."
Thus, an ideological dialectic is established, between fear (the stated or
present term) and its logical opposite (posed by virtue of its absence): valor.
The network, by presenting a show featuring a strong, valiant woman battling the
chaos and danger of an inner-city school, promotes what we might call an
ideology of valor, in the ideological frame of the Savior-Hero Myth.
The priviledged social norm, in other words, is strength; stated another
way, we are told through the ad that it is not acceptable to be weak and
powerless. This is the ideology of the promo, based on a social ideology which
favors strength and valor as an acceptable norm. That is the symbolism of the
text -- what viewers experience immediately -- but which, at the network level,
is merely a convenient marketing device projected in hopes of attracting
favorable audience attention.
If ideology is a practice influenced by and therefore based on
socio-cultural truisms, beliefs, and values of a particular society, then
ideology in the broadest sense is projected through a text, but also points to
statements or beliefs about reality that exist prior to and 'outside' the text;
the ideological frame of reference pre-exists a given text (Veron, 1971; Eco,
1972; Hall, 1980, 1991). But in the above example, ideology can be viewed, as
well, as stemming from the political-economic interests of the network, from its
corporate ideology of promoting workable marketing devices (convenient
symbolism) in hopes or garnering large audience share for the benefit of
advertisers who finance television programs.
IDEOLOGICAL FRAMES & REPRESENTATIVE ANECDOTES: ALL PROMOS
Having demonstrated the nature of ideological framing, Figure 2 (next page)
shows the representative anecdote and corresponding ideological frame for each
of the 18 individual shows studied. While each show usually will feature a
unique story-line (representative anecdote), each show can be linked, at the
more abstract level of analysis, to one of a smaller number of ideological
frames. For example, the Savior-Hero ideologic frame encapsulates four shows
(ABC's "Dangerous Minds"; CBS's suspense-drama "Early Edition"; and two NBC
sci-fi dramas, "Profiler," and "Pretender." Yet each show, except for the two on
NBC, have individual story-lines. In fact, CBS's "Early Edition" involves the
main character grappling with a special, supernatural power to transform events,
while ABC's "Dangerous Minds" is a realistic social drama; teacher Annie Potts'
powers stem from human rather than extra-human capacities. But all four shows,
in my analysis, project the same ideologic frame: the Savior/Hero Myth.
Only three shows (ABC's comedy, "Townies"; CBS' comedy "Pearl"; and NBC's
comedy "Mr. Rhodes") featured unique ideologic frames, as well as different
story-lines. But these three frames (hype v. simplicity; high v. popular
culture; knowledge competition) are similar, as they all pit one type of
knowledge of way of being against another.
The ideologic frames were fairly evenly distributed among networks; no
single network tended to favor certain frames over others, which lends evidence
to the notion that networks, as competitive oligopolies, rely on stock story and
thematic formulas that closely pattern each other (Nord, 1983). As Nord (p. 298)
explains: "Audience-maximizing equals profit-making. The struggle for the One
Big Audience coupled with the drive to avoid risk has led the networks,
logically and inexorably, into program duplication and dependence on
In terms of rhetorical frames, however, distinct patterns were discernible.
In general, NBC favored the artistic-based program-rhetorical frame, with seven
of its 11 promos (64 percent) in the program-frame mode. Five of ABC's eight
promo runs conformed by nearly an equal percentage (63 percent) to the hybrid
program-network frame, while the 15 CBS promo runs were balanced equally between
network and program rhetorical frames (40 percent each).
Two final examples are offered to help explicate the
political-economy/ideology link expressed in the rhetoric of the promo text.
The Network Rhetorical Frame:
An example of a network frame is a 10-second spot (worth $30, 591) promoting
the new "Cosby" show. The spoken text says only: They tried and they tried, but
you just can't spell Cosby without CBS. Mondays this fall. There's no picture of
Cosby, in fact, no "real" imagery at all. The promo consists entirely of
graphics material: a series of swirling, dangling letters on a bright yellow
background, quickly spelling out COSBY, NOBCY, FOOXY, AOBCY, then COSBY, and
CBS, accompanied by the CBS logo, the eye. At least a few letters of Cosby's
name appear in each "gibberish" word, as well as the call letters of CBS'
competitors -- NBC (NOBCY); Fox (FOOXY); and ABC (AOBCY). The network is clearly
playing on the fact that it is competing for viewerships with the other
networks, and this is the ad's primary message. The CBS "Cosby" promo, in other
words, is an unvarnished promotional device that wears its rhetorical aims on
its sleeve. As viewing subjects, we are asked to consider "Cosby" not really as
a show (because the ad offers no information about that) but as a network
property (..."you can't spell Cosby without CBS"). In those brief seconds of
promo time, we are introduced not to some highly crafted story-line about the
upcoming show, but to the political-economy of network competition as an object
worthy of contemplation: The very fact of CBS having acquired Cosby, the star
and the show, is all we are asked to consider.
Identifying the representative anecdote in this promo is a challenge, as
there is no traditional story-line, no obvious dramatic content. The story-line
itself is self-referential -- reflexive -- having to do with the glory of the
network itself, its "stars" and the particular kind of joy or amazement one
supposedly will experience by simply watching this particular network. This
network-rhetorical frame, then, is the television industry equivalent of brand
loyalty. In the Cosby promo, we come face to face with the rhetoric of
political-economy itself, with the ideology of viewership: The ad directs us,
commands us, to watch! And by doing so, the promo seems to suggest, we will
experience a kind of Mythical Presence.
I identified this as an Agent-Scene structure: The promo tells us: We, the
network, and Cosby, the star, are one in the same agents, and together we are
what defines CBS as a network, as both scene and agent of Mythical Presence.
This network frame, then, positions viewers to experience the network as almost
some kind of magical delivery system.
A PROGRAM-NETWORK FRAME EXAMPLE:
A close look at one of three promos for CBS' sit-com "Pearl," demonstrates how
a program-network rhetorical frame works by striking a balance between its
artistic and commercial elements. The verbal text of this 30-second promo (worth
$95,995 in deferred ad revenue) reads:
Voice-over: This Fall, CBS puts a new spin on the 3
Rs -- Reading, Riting, Rhea?
Perlman: So here I am, back and ready to go!
(Malcolm McDowell): I'm sorry. Have we met?
Voice-over: Rhea Perlman's going back to school.
Professor: Moby Dick represents evil. What does
Perlman: Charlie the Tuna?
Voice-over: Taking higher learning to new heights.
Professor: What did Socrates say was the greatest
thing a man or a woman could do?
Perlman: Raise children?
Professor: No, any idiot can raise children.
Look around you !
Voice-over: Pearl. CBS Wednesdays this Fall.
The action is centered in a traditional-looking college classroom, with the
professor standing in front of a roomful of students, sitting in the
bleacher-like wooden seats of a formal lecture hall. Behind the professor
(Malcolm McDowell) is a life-size human skeleton, giving an additional air of
scholarly importance to the proceedings. We see Perlman climbing over chairs,
tables and other students to get to her seat. She is deferential to McDowell's
steely, professorial presence. This is a case, thematically speaking, of a
confrontation between competing forms of knowledge (coded in the thematic grid
as "knowledge competition" -- a confrontation between high versus popular
cultural knowledge. We are presented with the dramatic contrast between
Melville's "Moby Dick" and the old ad campaign for "Charlie the Tuna"; the
hinted-at philosophical admonitions of Socrates ("What is the greatest thing a
man or woman could do"?) versus the greatest thing a working-class woman
believes she can do: "Raise children." To which the professor abjures: "Any
idiot can do that!"
We watch Rhea Perlman stumble over chairs and other students to get to her
own seat, her name is flashed on the screen to remind us who she is. As the
professor laughs, somewhat mockingly, when Perlman delivers her Charlie the Tuna
line, the words, "New Series" appear on the screen. As the promo ends, we see
appear a bright yellow disk, evocative of that used in recent CBS "Welcome Home"
house-ads, accompanied by the network logo and the phrase, "Wednesdays this
Reviewing these clustered terms collectively, we are confronted with a
dialectic: between the well-schooled, higher-status professor, sipping his tea
and confident in his knowledge, and his new charge, the working-class woman
returning to school, stumbling over chairs and tables, guessing that Ahab (from
Melville's "Moby Dick") might actually represent Charlie the Tuna, the popular
cartoon character associated for years with Star-Kist Tuna.
This promo was coded as an Agent/Purpose structure: the emphasis is
centered on Perlman as central agent, and her struggle to achieve a higher goal
("higher learning"), a larger purpose: to gain knowledge. The story-line or
essence of the text revealed through its representative anecdote is:
Working-class woman struggles to better herself. At the more abstract level, the
ideological frame which ultimately structures our understanding of the text
pertains essentially to the notion of knowledge competition, in this case what
we might call the battle between high culture and popular culture (Socrates
versus idiots; Moby Dick v. Charlie the Tuna; the confident, tea-sipping
professor secure in his university education, versus the working-class woman who
wants access to that very world). The central ideological message, then,
valorizes academic knowledge as superior -- Pearl, after all, aspires to gaining
a college degree -- even while the text pokes fun at this superior knowledge as
represented by the stuff professor.
As viewers, we are hailed (Althusser, 1971) by the rhetorical-ideological
maneuver of the text, invited to focus on these embedded themes as cultural,
political messages worthy of our comedic contemplation. We are invited to
position our own cultural sensibility in relation to the connotative/ideological
message -- the motive-embedded symbols call into question what can be considered
valid knowledge; Pearl represents working-class knowledge, a subordinate
knowledge as compared to its academic counterpart, embodied in the professor
himself and accompanying language of the text. At work in the text is an
ideological combat between official and popular knowledge structures, embodied
by the dialectic between Perlman and her professionally sanctioned tutor.
But this is not all the text gives us, rhetorically positioned as it is
within a program-network frame. We are confronted, as well, with the more
commercially blatant message common to the network-frame: "This is a promo for a
new show on CBS that you should watch -- we wish for you to identify with us, to
devote your attention to us." The big, swirling red letters spelling out "CBS,"
and the three Rs, as well as other prominent letters declaring, "New Series." As
viewers, we are positioned to interact with the dramatic, artistic message of
the text regarding the actual program itself, but alongside a complementary
message: this is a show we want you to watch. CBS, after all, spent no small
amount to produce this and the two other "Pearl" promos that ran during the
three-hour prime-time schedule.
The first two "Pearl" promos, each of which ran 15 seconds but depicted
essentially more of a program-frame rhetorical stance, represented $52,745 each
in commercial ad-revenue. CBS therefore invested a total of $148,740 for three
promos, taking up just one minute of air time devoted to promoting one of its
new Fall sitcoms.
The political element of political-economic analysis always involves the
question of economic structures in relation their power base. The power base in
this study is, of course, the networks, which produce an economic product
(television programs) that, inasmuch as they are cultural/symbolic products, are
vehicles for the production of meaning and, therefore, vehicles for and of
The standard product or service ad is always about selling a commodity, a
product. In the broadest sense, this is also the goal of the promotional spot,
the commodity here being, first, the program advertised and, in
political-economy terms, the audience itself -- the "audience commodity"
(Smythe, 1994; Webster & Phalen, 1994; Owen & Wildman, 1992), those targeted
demographic groups which television networks hope to attract in the largest
possible numbers to full-length programs, so as to gain the largest possible
advertising revenues, the lifeblood of the commercial television industry.
Analyzing the promo within its institutional framework allows us to see it
as more than just a trivial message about what might be a trivial program. The
promotional spot plays a significant role in normalizing the network program
schedule for the estimated 97 million U.S. television households. This study has
attempted to go beyond a simply textual reading of promotional spots by striving
to link the rhetorical ideology of the text to its generative framework, its
political-economy of production. The cultural/symbolic product which the viewer
experiences at the rhetorical-symbolic level as use-value ("meaning") is
experienced at the network level soley as exchange value, as an economic
calculus, and one of enormous dollar value to the networks; in this study
totaling more than $2 million for less then 12 minutes of promo time.
The value of attending to rhetorical and ideologic framing techniques in
each promotional spot is that this provides us, in concert with Burkean text
criticism, with another interpretive route toward unveiling the communicative
goals of the rhetor, the network itself. In televisual promotional spots, we
confront the ideology of the network (its corporate logic of attracting
viewership) as reflected in the rhetorical ideology of the promo as text. We
engage the intermingled languages of art and commerce.
What has come to be called, under the rubric the commodification of culture
(Appadurai, 1986; Boozer, 1989; Gottdiener, 1995; Jameson, 1991; Klinger, 1991;
Mulvey, 1993; Tyson, 1994; Willis, 1991) does seem to be increasingly a mark of
our age; and it is the prevailing ethic that is so thoroughly the project of
television -- to solidify consumption as a morally acceptable and regular
feature of contemporary life. In this sense, what we encounter in television is
a whole system of objects (Baudrillard, 1996), a system of commodification
designed to invoke in us the never-ending desire to consume not so much the
varied objects of capitalism, but rather the system itself, its logic and
rationale, as promulgated through electronic simulacra (Baudrillard, 1983,
1981). As Browne (1987) notes, commercial television collapses the distinction
between the supermarket and the "super-text," between the programs and the flood
of advertisements surrounding them. This phenomenon is no more apparent than in
the advertising format of the television promotional spot, an exemplar of the
postmodern text, whose schizophrenic quality is to shift endlessly between the
poles of art and commodity, all but exploding any difference between the two.
The television promotional spot is worthy of study because it is so
central to promoting the consumption ethic that drives cultural
commodification.process. Underlying those brief seconds of persuasive imagery
that make up the promo is a huge factory system of actors, writers, directors,
producers and financiers. Collectively they are in the service of systematically
using words, sounds and symbols as formulaic marketing devices to "grab and
retain the largest chunk of the targeted audience for the longest period of
time," by "whetting appetites for what is to yet to come and transforming
television viewing into a continuous experience" (Sahin & Robinson , in
Corcoran, 1984, p. 143).
Only reception studies can determine, albeit within limits imposed by the
text (Condit, 1991), how viewers actually interpret television texts in
specific, contextualized viewing situations (Liebes, 1992; Liebes & Ribak, 1994;
Liebes & Katz, 1990; Morley, 1992, pp. 85-90; Moffitt, 1993). What I have
attempted, rather, is to focus on the production side of the text by
demonstrating how television promotionals are structured to position viewers
within the political-economy of television as an integrated, signifying system
of material and rhetorical objects. By advancing television as a mass-mediated
signifying system that symbiotically links and virtually evaporates artistic and
commercial interests, promotional spots perform an important role in promoting
the commodification of cultural experience.
 A much fuller account of the links between rhetoric, political-economy and
ideology, and more extensive discussions of each, can be found in Harry (1997),
which also points to the relative strengths and weaknesses of Burkean rhetorical
 The sample comprises a total of 18 new fall shows, represented in 34 promo
spots aired on all three networks during one evening's prime-time schedule (8
p.m.-11 p.m., Monday, August 19, 1996). The sample does not include the many
other promo spots for existing shows, nor for upcoming specials or sports
activities that also aired during that three-hour period.
 This is an extremely conservative estimate, as I did not have access to
the actual commercial ad-rates charged during any given program, which are
based upon specific audience demographics. For example, the most-favored
demographic group is the 18-to-49 age group, especially those with higher income
and education levels. Commercial ad rates for viewers in that category
typically are several times higher than for a show that attracts a much younger
or significantly older audience. So the commercial ad rates in this study are
rock-bottom, bare minimum. They are calculated at the going CPM
(cost-per-thousand) rate of $11 per 1,000 television households per 30-second
commercial during primetime (TV Dimensions, 1996, pp. 59-61). The economic worth
of each promo spot analyzed in this case study was calculated based upon total
seconds of air-time, times the $11-per-thousand-households rate, times the
estimated number of households tuned in during the specific program time-slot
in which a promo ran. For example, the air-time cost for a 30-second promo
for CBS' "Ink," which aired during the 9-9:30 p.m. "Murphy Brown" time-slot,
was based on an estimated 8.15 million television households that watched the
show. This rating is based on 8.5 ratings points assigned to "Murphy Brown,"
with each point representing 959,000 television households, out of a total
television household population at that time of 95.9 million (Broadcasting &
Cable, September 2, 1996, p. 29). At that rate, the value of 30 seconds of
commercial time for the "Ink" promo was $89,666. Any promo that was less than
30 seconds was calculated, for pricing purposes, as a percentage of 30 seconds.
Only one promo, for NBC's "Foxworthy," was longer than 30 seconds; in that case,
this 60-second spot was priced by calculating its 30-second cost and doubling
 It should be noted, however, that while rhetoric examines communication in
light of its audience-persuasive content, rhetoric is a speech or text-based
methodology. It allows us to see how a message may be persuasively constructed
so as to persuade an audience of hearers or readers. Only 'reception' analysis
can tell us just how an audience actually responds to a set of messages (see,
for example, Condit, 1991; Gerbner, et.al, 1986; Liebes, 1992; Liebes & Ribak,
1994; Liebes & Katz, 1990).
 In the 14 years since Nord wrote this, the commercial television market
has vastly expanded, with much more cable and satellite television, as well as
new programming from the Fox and two other new networks available. This fact
demands more attention, as it is clear, for example, that a younger, more
affluent audience has been targeted by the Fox network (meaning a somewhat
different type of programming). But by Nord's own logic, new programming
genres, in an oligopoly, simply result in new copy-cat behavior by competing
networks; witness the profusion of new copy-cat shows based on Fox's highly
successful suspense-thriller, "X Files." So, it would seem, his logic would
still gnerally prevail, especially as the major networks have lost audience
share to these new challengers, with the networks now commanding only about
two-thirds of the total television viewing (TV Dimensions, 1996).