To paraphrase a 1970s movie about television: I'm mad as hell ... and I'm trying to figure out how much more to take.
From the networks, that is. They're delivering advertisers less in quantity and quality of audience and demanding that we pay them more for the privilege.
ITEM: The National Football League decides to switch networks and double the cost of TV rights. Collectively, ABC, CBS, Fox and ESPN ante up $17 billion to get the business. Advertisers will be expected to cover just about all that cost ... but did anybody ask the advertisers?
ITEM: NBC, which possibly for all the right reasons opted out of NFL football, now really needs to hold on to the No. 1 prime time show. So the network decides to pay $13 million per episode for 'ER.'
Then, in order to keep a hot sitcom hot, NBC agrees to pay Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser a cool million dollars each per half-hour episode of 'Mad About You' (a cute show, by the way).
So everybody at NBC - producers, directors, actors, the network - gets a nice raise at the advertisers' expense. Unfortunately, without any up-front input from the advertisers.
ITEM: The final episode of 'Seinfeld' asks $2 million per 30-second spot - $66,666 per second! And who's expected to pay for it? You got it - the advertisers.
You could argue that I've picked only the most outlandish examples. Sadly, not so. Over the past four years as television audiences have eroded, advertisers' prime-time network costs have increased at double-digit levels annually. I wonder what would happen if we tried that with minivans.
Meanwhile, advertisers find their messages diluted in an ever-more-cluttered environment.
In an editorial in its April 6 issue, Advertising Age pointed out that the 'Big Four' broadcast networks added more than 1,100 commercial and network promotional units in prime time alone during the first 10 weeks of the 1997-98 season. That was on top of the 2,100 units they added in the 1996-97 season (as if there weren't enough in 1995!).
The conclusion of the editorial was that 'it's time advertisers speak up, and TV network managers should apply the brakes before clutter gets even more out of hand.'
Well, I, for one, am speaking up. And to be fair, maybe I - and other advertisers and agencies - should have spoken up long ago. To us as advertisers, the rising costs and increased clutter are making the position of the networks pretty clear. They're forcing us to re-evaluate how we use network TV.
It seems as if they're in business to help actors, producers, athletes, owners, leagues and themselves all get richer ... because they believe that we, the compliant advertisers, are going to pay for it.
But even though we're paying customers, the networks don't give us any input into these very expensive decisions. They just assume we'll always be with them, checkbook in hand.
Well, the day may come when we won't always be with them, because the customers we want to reach won't be with them either. Unlike the advertisers, the customers started a revolution of their own a long time ago. It's the information revolution.
What's happening is that customers are making new demands. They're demanding more control. They want to control what information they get, how they get it, when they get it and where they get it. Traditional channels of mass marketing - at least as we know them today - simply cannot provide them with that level of control.
In order for companies such as Chrysler to best serve our customers, we have to take full advantage of this information revolution, too. We have to develop ways of communicating that really connect with our owners and our prospects - communications that make them think positively about us and our products, our brands and our dealers. And that may not be possible in a 30-second spot - even if they are within the final episode of 'Seinfeld.'
With more and more television channels and more and better advertising and marketing opportunities available to us, not the least of which is the explosion of the Internet, advertisers owe it to themselves to show their products and build their brands in places where they can have the greatest impact and control.
Of course, we can't and shouldn't just walk away from network television, especially when we have new products to launch. And we won't. Cars and trucks are visual products, and we need television to help make sure that millions of our customers and our prospects regularly see what we have to offer.
But when it comes time to speak directly to our most valuable customers - our owners and our easily identifiable next-in-market prospects - we owe it to ourselves and to them to provide information via other media that will actually help them make their buying decisions. For advertisers, there are all kinds of new opportunities to explore.
And, after all, even Jerry Seinfeld knows when it's time to explore new opportunities.
Excerpts from an address to the Automotive News Automotive Marketing Seminar during the New York auto show.