I Have a Great Commercial, So Why Won't the Networks Air It?


Ever wonder why you see nudity on "NYPD Blue" but still have trouble getting prime-time network clearance for your fast food commercial because a character's cleavage raises "taste considerations"? Given that commercials are the networks' primary source of income, many advertisers believe that securing network clearance for a commercial is really just a formality where you "pay to play."

While it's true that securing network clearance can be a routine, uncomplicated process, even some of the biggest advertisers and ad agencies have had to spend time and money reediting a commercial--often at the last minute--because of network objections. By knowing how the process works and anticipating network editors' comments, advertisers and their agencies can make the process quicker and more cost-effective. To help accomplish that, we've compiled some of the questions that advertisers frequently ask us and provided answers and insights not only from our years of experience, but directly from ABC, CBS and NBC as well.

How Do I go About Getting Network Approval?

An agency submits storyboards for review to the network on which the commercial is scheduled to air. The network editor may approve the storyboard (subject to review of the final videocassette of the commercial) or ask for revisions to the commercial and/or substantiation of product or service claims. If the agency is unable to provide adequate substantiation or otherwise overcome the editor's objections, the network will refuse to air the commercial.

Networks Mandated to Operate in the Public Interest

With cable and other media carving into the networks' profits, how can the networks afford to tell advertisers to either revise a commercial or forget running it on their stations? The networks are not blind to the fact that they are in a competitive business. "There's no question that there is significantly increased competition, as it has been a long time since the days of the three-network universe," notes Harvey Dzodin, V.P., Commercial Standards at ABC. "What has not changed, however, is our legally-mandated requirement to operate in the public interest and this means ensuring that all advertising claims are truthful, and not false, misleading or deceptive."

So rest assured that the networks are in the business of making money, but the best way for them to do that and protect the FCC licenses of their owned and affiliated stations is to ensure that the commercial messages that they broadcast are truthful, not misleading and that the commercial content does not offend the sensibilities of their viewing audience. For advertisers' references, ABC, NBC and CBS each has its own set of commercial clearance guidelines available, but the networks' and advertisers' interpretations of the guidelines may not always coincide. Keep in mind that Fox as well as certain cable networks and independent stations also have commercial clearance guidelines, although not all of them are published and the commercial clearance process is generally not as rigorous as that of the "big three" networks. Nevertheless, many cable and independent stations do review commercials before approving them for broadcast and securing that approval may also require some negotiation.

How Can I Change the Networks Mind?

If the networks do object to my commercial, how can I succeed at changing their minds? Network editors are open to hearing your response to their objections, but in order to be successful it's important to understand the rationale behind the editor's requests and anticipate what information or argument will be persuasive.

In clarifying the reasons your commercial was rejected, be sure to ask the editor if it is a legal problem or a network policy problem. If it is a legal problem, you will probably have limited options other than complying with the networks' requests. For example, the FTC requires that advertisers and agencies have substantiation of product and service claims in their files before the commercials are broadcast. Hence, if your commercial contains performance claims about your own product or comparisons to a competitor's product, the networks will ask for, and you will have to supply, reliable documentation based on independent clinical or consumer research. Avoid gathering reams of information indiscriminately in an attempt to "paper" the editor into submission-- particularly at the last minute. Editors are likely to be more receptive to your arguments if you present only relevant substation in a well organized form and give them a reasonable amount of time to review it.

If, however, an editor deems your storyboard to be contrary to its network policy, consider whether it is an editorial clearance policy or a network sales policy. For example, while the clearance departments operate independently of their sales departments, they nevertheless respect sales policies such as prohibitions against commercials which refer to other networks' shows. Remember, the networks are privately owned and set their own sales policies, so there may be no way to negotiate these restrictions. However, if a network's sales policy seems flexible or arbitrarily applied, it may be worthwhile, in selected instances, for an ad agency or advertiser to ask its media buying department to verify whether there is any room for negotiation with the network's sales department.

If an editor rejects your commercial on the grounds that is it contrary to network clearance guidelines, consider the reasons or spirit behind the particular guideline which is being cited. Remember, these are policies, not laws, and if your commercial doesn't violate the spirit of the network's guidelines, there may be some room for negotiation.

Why is the Network Singling out my Commercial as Objectionable When I see this Kind of Thing on TV all the Time?

Keep in mind that the networks distinguish between programming content and commercial content. Matthew Margo, V.P., Program Practices at CBS, puts it this way: "Viewers generally have a certain level of expectation about the type of program they'll be watching, but they can't prepare for commercials which arrive unannounced. Also, with programs, viewers have an opportunity to learn about a show through reviews and the rating system before deciding whether or not to watch it." They point is that viewers can selectively choose the programming they watch, but not the commercials.

If however, you think you've seen commercials that are creatively analogous to yours which have run on the same network, it may be helpful to engage a video monitoring service to get copies of these commercials to present in your negotiations. Rich Gitter, V.P., Advertising Standards and Program Compliance at NBC, agrees: "What I find most persuasive in these situations are actual examples that show this decision is inconsistent with previous ones we've made." While editors may respond that the network in under no obligation to make the same mistake twice, it may nevertheless help persuade them that, in approving your commercial, they are not setting a new precedent or creating a new liability for the network. A word of caution: Be sure the comparative commercials that you submit actually ran on the network and not on a network affiliate or a local station which may have different broadcast standards that those on the network.

Can I Appeal an Editor's Decision to Someone Higher up at the Network?

If your discussions with a particular network editor are fruitless, but you feel you have a valid, well substantiated point that isn't contrary to the network's guidelines, or at least the spirit of the network's guidelines, you can appeal the editor's decision by asking the editor to have the commercial reviewed by the head of the network's clearance department. You will probably have to write a persuasive letter to the head of the clearance department, asserting your points and asking if he or she would review the commercial. However, if your commercial is scheduled to air within, say 48 hours, it may be necessary to try to phone the head of clearance directly.

There may also be cases where a face-to-face meeting with the editor and the head of clearance is needed. For example, if your substantiation is of a technical or clinical nature and yo feel it is being misinterpreted by the networks, it may be helpful to schedule a meeting where you and an expert from the advertiser's research department can sit down with the editor, a member of the network's research staff and the head of clearance to explain how your documentation supports your claims.

Keep in mind that personal relationships are crucial. The network editors will not be favorably disposed to an advertiser who consistently submits storyboards that conflict with its clearance policies. No matter how wed you are to a particular creative execution, keep in mind that you will likely need to work with this editor on future campaigns as well. To the extent that you can, be open to considering the network's point of view.

Summary

Knowing how the commercial clearance process works and anticipating the networks' concerns will allow you to plan ahead in order to avoid absolute "no's" from the networks. As a final word of advice, always try to submit storyboards to the networks early so that, if negotiations fail, any necessary changes can be made before production begins. Time spent on revisions and negotiations can also be saved by having storyboards reviewed by persons familiar with the network clearance process event before the storyboards are presented to a client.