Coming soon to a cubicle near you!'s "Newsmakers" campaign stakes a claim on the theater of the future -- the screen that's staring you in the face.

Published April 8, 1999 11:55AM (EDT)

In New York City, the revolution arrives by bus. So it was that last month launched a bus-side ad campaign encouraging the city's office drones to log onto its news site on the job. With the tag line "Ready when you are," the campaign, "Newsmakers," is the highest-profile effort to date to seize what online analysts Jupiter Communications call "the new prime time" -- the noon-to-4 p.m. slot.

The campaign's most immediate attention-grabbing aspect was its pitchmen: The ads, also on train platforms, subway-fare cards and coffee cups to target info-hungry straphangers, pair international figures with cute taglines -- for Saddam Hussein, "He's available for dictation at your desk."

Now certainly there's something a bit unseemly about using tyrants and mass murderers as a carrot for viewership. (It's just a shame Pol Pot already kicked it: "Y2K worries? Wait till you hear about his Year Zero problems!") And despite the ass-covering references to checking the site at "lunch" (as if any cubicle jockey has a lunch hour anymore), one has to wonder just how open Michael Eisner is to his own serfs' on-the-clock browsing. "We didn't think that it was our place to judge what companies' policies should be," said vice president and general manager Katherine Dillon, adding that the site's hits generally peak around lunchtime and that, at least in the news division, worktime surfing is "integral" to the job.

But the real coup of what Advertising Age called ABC's "guerrilla" campaign (which Dillon said should break nationwide later in the year) is that it announces a new theater in the infotainment wars. Pop quiz: Where are you reading this column? In the family room, huddled around the monitor, arm around your spouse, kids snuggled into their jammies, enjoying warm cups of cocoa as you explore this new medium together like families around the crystal sets of old?

Yeah, right. You're probably chained to your office monitor, checking out this site as a backup diversion after running out of ideas for thumbtack-and-pink-eraser animal sculptures. As any online writer who reads his reader e-mail can tell you, the inflow of response more or less maps the daily schedule of the white-collar work force. Beep! It's coffee break on the West Coast. Beep! Lunchtime, CST. Online moguls and IPO candidates may talk convergence and streaming video and the death of the dinosaur media, but those of us working online know our real competition is not "ER" or Imus, but rather the third-quarter projections spreadsheet due on your boss's desk by 3 p.m.

It's a battle we're happy to fight, judging by the full-page newspaper ads whipped up this week to tout the 24-hour Kosovo coverage at and, presumably to draw work-time surfers. If the majority of America's disposable income is spending most of its time atrophying in its ergonomic chairs, who needs to conquer the living room? Who needs the box office when you can have, well, the office?

While everyone else fights it out for America's meager leisure time, the Web is the art and info forum best suited to the most important space in contemporary life: the workplace. Can it be long before Fox starts producing cigarette-break-length sitcoms especially for office consumption? Until we see ad-sponsored online videoconferencing, the better to tuck in your kids from your desk at 10 p.m.? Already, ABC's striking an interesting deal with the overcommitted American: Not home in time to catch "World News Tonight"? Suit yourself; we'll bring Peter Jennings to you.

Not that this is necessarily bad for the businesses whose workers are being romanced. Whereas a Scandinavian business, say, might encourage loyalty with day-care centers or on-site shiatsu, with Yankee ingenuity we've managed to get the job done much more quickly and cheaply simply by encouraging the work force to entertain themselves with their tools. One career guide after another espouses the value of "face time" -- better called "ass time," since it amounts to hours spent at the office to impress the boss, working or not -- and what better way to further lengthen an already life-sucking workday than with regular hits from the Information Hookah?

Nowadays, work is pretty much inextricable from the rest of life anyway. With an army of telecom companies using world music, Sam Neill and Madonna to sell the 24-hour workday as one big funky global rave party, we have long been moving toward Total Work Culture. But it's an effort like "Newsmakers" that really throws it into sharp relief, with the ads thrown on every device Pharaoh uses to help you through your day at the pyramids: the platform alongside your Metro North train, the side of the bus you connect to at Grand Central, the Metrocard you use to board the bus, the side of the vendor cart you visit before work and the productivity-boosting cup of java you buy there.

Work is play; play is work -- that's just one contradiction of the new prime time. On one hand, the economy, hurtling along at historically low levels of unemployment, depends on tech-driven increases in productivity from its strapped workers. On the other hand, it also demands, for the sake of a tech-driven stock market and a vast Ponzi scheme of Internet investment, that these same workers make online business and content sources a part of their daily lives -- which, of course, they do by spending half the day surfing the Web. Thus too can site creators stimulate the software and telecommunications industries by adding giant applets and Shockwave features to their sites -- not because of the minimal percentage of households who are getting cable modems, but because they know damn well their prime audience is hogging the T1 line downtown.

We have been hearing that, through online trading and index funds, we are all stockholders today. Not only that, though, we're all moonlighters, putting in overtime on the job to service the entire Nasdaq by stoking the Internet economy. It's a classic macro- vs. microeconomic clash: By goofing off on the job, you're stealing from your employer. But like as not, that same employer depends, however tangentially, on the e-conomy you're supporting through your very indolence.

Maybe, in fact, that's the real justification for the Internet stock explosion: The Web is the first mass medium to harness the sloth of the American worker, perhaps the most powerful force known to history. So go ahead: Sound off in that MSNBC chatroom! Play that online trivia game! Download that streaming porn! With every beaver shot you retrieve on the company's dime, you create a job!

Locating the white-hot center of American recreation is the true brilliance of the "Newsmakers" campaign, and one other advertisers would be wise to catch on to. Like, say, the advertiser you're looking at, which is hyping its own relaunch with the tagline "Salon ... Makes You Think." Far be it from me to undercut our hired guns, but if pitching the site as online ginkgo biloba doesn't pan out, we could do worse than learn from ABC and company. "Salon ... Beats the Hell Outta Workin'."

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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