It All Began With Radio
Broadcasting was originally developed as a means for companies to sell radios. But once commercial entities realized that many households were listening to their radios a significant amount of time every day, they started to explore this medium as a way to get their message across to the masses. If one has to choose a single event that began the era of radio broadcasting, it would probably be the radio program broadcast by station WEAF in New York City on August 28, 1922 This was a ten-minute advertisement for suburban apartment housing. By Christmas of that year, several major New York department stores joined the fray and were running advertisements for their stores.
By the late 20's radio advertising had advanced in a dramatic way. It was now dominated by advertising agencies who took control of the schedules by buying the available air time and selling it to their customers. They also handled the creative aspects of the commercials and programs and in fact even created entire series that were designed to sell one product or another. These efforts paved the way for the genesis of television advertising that would begin in a few more decades.
The Era of the Single Sponsor
Full time telecasting didn't really take hold until 1948 as it took that long for the United States to recover from the Depression and World War II. At that time, the number of television sets reached the critical mass necessary to be considered a medium that could reach the masses. As television was a totally new phenomenon – i.e. offering both sound and moving pictures, the advertising industry moved into this arena cautiously as they were not sure what methods would work best to promote their clients products on television. In other words, should it still be treated as radio advertising but with pictures thrown in or would an entirely new approach need to be taken to reach the television audiences in a meaningful and effective manner?
After study and many surveys, the advertising agencies determined that the most effective way to reach consumers with a strong message would be by creating shows that featured a single product or a line of products from a single company. From this concept arose the typical television shows of the 1950's including such titles as Kraft Television Theater, Colgate Comedy Hour, and Coke Time. As with radio, these television programs were produced by advertising agencies for their clients rather than the studios as is common practice currently.
This practice worked really well for the clients for a while. But as the television gained more popularity and there were more people watching it, the television networks were raising the costs of doing business (i.e. more eyeballs = more total dollars spent to reach them all) and this upward pressure on the cost of delivering a production over the television (plus the ever increasing costs of creating new content) forced a massive change in the relationship of all the parties: the advertising agencies, the clients/sponsors and the television networks. A solution had to be found if this very powerful advertising medium was to continue to be cost effective for the sponsors.
Enter the Era of Magazine Concept Advertising
NBC executive Sylvester L. “Pat” Weaver came up a with a solution that would work and would also be very favorable to the networks. He introduced the “magazine concept” of television advertising. In this arrangement, the sponsors would purchase blocks of time (typically one to two minutes) in a show rather than be a sponsor for an entire show. This idea would allow a variety of sponsors – up to four was the number imagined – for a show. Like a magazine, the networks would now control the content as no one advertiser would “own” a particular show.
Like all new ideas, this one was originally resisted by Masison Avenue but after a bit of experimentation, they found that this method would work very well for a variety of packaged-goods companies manufacturing a cornucopia of brand names, such as Procter and Gamble with such disparate products as Tide (laundry detergent), Crest (toothpaste), and Jif (peanut butter).
By 1960, the magazine concept dominated television advertising, as it has ever since. Instead of relying on audience identification with a specific show, sponsors now spread their messages across the schedule in an effort to reach as many consumers as possible. The ability to spread their advertising dollars out to reach a broader segment of the population proved to be very effective for the sponsors. Where once they were locked into a specific time block every day or every week on a particular network, they could now choose the times and the networks where they wanted their message to be seen.
This evolution of magazine concept advertising is truly the birth of most modern television advertising. The one exception is the infomercial which is really a throwback to the sponsored show model used in the early days of television advertising.