Most media outlets have learnt that programming that displeases advertisers or sponsors can cause problems. For example, WNET a public TV station in New York lost its corporate underwriting from Gulf & Western after showing a documentary called Hunger from Profit about the activities of multinationals in the third world. Gulf & Western said the documentary was “virulently anti-business, if not anti-American.”
The more indirect influence of advertising on media content is more pervasive. Since the media depend on advertisers and sponsors for revenue, they seek to maximise those audiences that will attract advertisers. Not just any audience will do. Papers that attract large numbers of low-consuming working-class people have often failed through lack of advertiser support. For example, in Britain the Daily Herald and the Daily Sketch failed financially despite daily circulations above a million. Whereas papers with much smaller circulations that are read by affluent people whom advertisers want to reach, such as The Financial Times, have thrived.
Bagdikian outlines how advertising has shaped the content of magazines:
Serious articles were not always the best support for ads. An article that put the reader in an analytical frame of mind did not encourage the reader to take seriously an ad that depended on fantasy or promoted a trivial product. An article on genuine social suffering might interrupt the “buying” mood on which most ads for luxuries depend. The next step, seen often in mid-twentieth century magazines, was commissioning articles solely to attract readers who were good prospects to buy products advertised in the magazine. After that came the magazine phenomenon of the 1970s — creating magazines for an identifiable special audience and selling them to particular advertisers.
In television, one point loss on the ratings can represent a loss of $100 million a year in advertising. Producers of television entertainment try to avoid material that would scare advertisers and audiences away. The result is, according to Jacobson and Mazur in their book Marketing Madness: “TV programs that flow seamlessly into commercials, avoiding controversy, lulling us into submission like an electronic tranquilizer.”