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An ad is an ad is an ad

Wednesday, Sep 13 2000
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ABC finished in third place on Sunday night’s ”Who Wants To Win an Emmy,“ but on the streets of L.A., the nation‘s most-watched network was still on top of its game. As part of the buildup for its Emmy telecast, the Disney-owned network paid the city of Los Angeles $3,400 to drape its corporate colors from 199 lampposts clustered along high-profile stretches throughout the city.

Unlike last year’s banner fiasco, when ABC‘s bumblebee-yellow-and-black banners advertising Drew Carey, Dharma and Greg, All My Children and The Practice were declared illegal because they violated a ban on ”any street banner of a commercial nature,“ this season the mini-billboards went up for the 10-day Emmy promotion with the city’s blessing.

City officials had vowed that ABC, as well as other purely commercial enterprises, like the MTV Music Awards, would never again use public property for private advertising. Last November, the council passed a law restricting the window-shade billboards to promoting nonprofit, charitable or city-sponsored events.

For the first eight months, the ban seemed to be working. No more ubiquitous mini-ads for Rupert Murdoch‘s Dodgers. No more free rides for the next release from Universal Pictures. Then ABC exploited a loophole in the new ordinance that allows for-profit companies to sponsor banners of not-for-profit groups and events. The size of the sponsor’s logo is limited to no more than 20 percent of the 24-square-foot window-shade billboard -- fine print, in other words.

Enter ABC and the Emmys. The Emmy Awards, it turns out, is a nonprofit ”event,“ put on by the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Under the law, because the event would be held within the city limits at the Shrine Auditorium, the Emmys show was entitled to put up banners all over town. So ABC‘s marketing department, which had no reason to parse such fine distinctions between its for-profit broadcast and the nonprofit event, seized the opportunity to festoon the city in a yellow-and-black rerun of last year’s banner lineup. All they needed was the Academy‘s name on a city permit. The Academy obliged. ”We facilitated securing the banner locations with the city,“ promotions director Scott Slavin admits, ”but, well, it was for both of us, for the Emmys and ABC.“

Kevin Brockman, ABC’s senior V.P. for entertainment communications, acknowledges that his company‘s marketing department -- not the television academy -- designed the banners. ”Since the Emmys are on ABC, it makes sense for ABC to sponsor the banners,“ he avers. When the similarity between the Emmy campaign and ABC’s fall 1999 promotion was pointed out, Brockman chortles, ”Oh, yeah, I‘ve had several people tell me that.“

Speeding along San Vicente Boulevard heading toward the Beverly Center or cruising Barham Boulevard on the road to Warner Bros. and NBC studios, it was hard to miss the black circle with the lowercase, white ”abc“ floating in a dandelion sea. a The top of the banner was inscribed in ebony lettering with ”EMMY AWARDS 2000 Shrine Auditorium Sunday 91000 8:00 PM,“ and opposite the corporate logo, against the same yellow background, was the winged Emmy statuette. Across the bottom, a wide band of black. The impression was unmistakable and indistinguishable from last year’s unlawful display.

”Obviously, it‘s part of ABC’s branding,“ says Andy Gold, whose company, Gold Graphics, installed the banners.

Wasn‘t this kind of commercialism exactly what the reform ordinance was intended to address? ”I’m fully aware that that‘s what they’re trying to do. They are pushing the envelope,“ admits Christopher M. Westhoff, the assistant city attorney who crafted the law, and whose office vetted the Emmy banners. ”But the Emmys are a nonprofit, and the banners fall within the four corners of the ordinance.“

How this is so reveals the flaw in the changes adopted last November. The Emmy banners went through three rounds of revisions ordered by Westhoff, who describes himself as the reluctant ”banner police.“ In ABC‘s first submission, the left panel of the banner featured Emmy host Garry Shandling, the comedian with a smile sweet as a lemon wedge, gazing across at a panel with the ABC logo hovering above ”THE EMMY AWARDS -- ABC -- Sunday.“ Westhoff said to lose Shandling and add ”the date and the words ’Shrine Auditorium‘ to the Emmy announcement.

“That’s what made this an event, the fact that it was being held at the Shrine,” Westhoff explains. But when ABC offered a redesign that swapped the Shandling image for the Emmy statuette and added the Shrine, Westhoff balked again. The words “Shrine Auditorium” were too close to the “abc” black ball. The third version was approved when the logo was shifted nearer to the bottom of the banner.

And that was all the city could do to curb what Westhoff concedes “looked like an advertisement for a TV show. The fact that there is a corresponding TV show is irrelevant to the fact that a nonprofit is advertising an event,” Westhoff says.

That is the pitfall of the “reformed” ordinance. Last November, after revelations in the Weekly, the City Council came up with its new rules for banners. In the prologue to the ordinance unanimously adopted on November 9, 1999, the city set out “a general prohibition on street banners,” making exceptions only “for community, charitable, nonprofit and City of Los Angeles events.” But the council caved in to pressure from banner companies and from nonprofits such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and UCLA, which complained that without sponsorship, no banners would go up. So, old language in the ordinance forbidding “a banner which directs attention to a commodity, product, service, attraction or event, sold, or offered for sale . . . by a commercial enterprise, or which in any way promotes a commercial enterprise or its products” was crossed out.

The council appears to have lost interest in the issue. Delpha Flad, a press aide to Councilwoman Rita Walters, who in the past has tried to strip blatant advertising from banners, says, “We‘ve left it up to the city attorney to determine if it falls within the guidelines that were passed by the council.”

Says Westhoff: “This was a close case. You are always going to have those [banners] that are technically within the meaning of the law but will seem like advertisements.”

Which is about what the marketing boys at ABC figured.

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