It’s not exactly arms to the Ayatollah or nuclear secrets to the
Chinese, but all of the broadcast networks pounced on a January 2,
2001 New York Times story revealing that, among other salacious
tidbits, Tostitos snack chips now come in a 13˝ ounce bags which
cost the same ($3.29) but contain six or seven fewer chips than the
old 14˝ ounce bags. The front-page Times article by Greg Winter
related how some manufacturers, faced with increased production
costs, have switched to smaller packages as an alternative to direct
sleuths, tipped off by the Times, acted as if they had uncovered a
scandal and quickly branded the surreptitious downsizing of the
snack food containers as duplicitous. But those same networks have
been quietly trimming the news content of their own evening news
programs for years, with more and more valuable seconds of airtime
devoted to advertising and promotion.
"When Tostitos recently reduced the amount of corn chips by one
ounce, they also made the bag smaller," ABC’s Bill Redeker
indignantly informed his audience on the January 2 edition of World
News Tonight. "Consumer advocates say this borders on
deception....[and] some consumers feel taken advantage of."
"While you weren’t watching, the contents of that package of your
favorite food or drink — even diapers — have shrunk, but the price
has remained the same," griped NBC’s Brian Williams that same
All of the reporters indicated there was something under-handed
about the practice, that manufacturers were trying to put one over
on customers. "Shaving an ounce worth of chips from each bag is an
example of how food manufacturers offset increased production costs
without raising the radar of price-conscience shoppers," alerted
CBS’s Cynthia Bowers.
NBC’s Robert Hager went to the grocery store and sought out
irritable customers. "When Nellie Otima buys diapers for her
seven-month old, she’s angry," he reported. "Suddenly getting less
for her money — manufacturers quietly reduced the number in each
package without reducing the price nearly as much....It’s called
‘down-counting,’ putting less content in a package, a way of making
money without seeming to."
The next morning, both NBC and CBS showcased experts who
condemned the business practice. The Early Show’s Julie Chen
wondered if businesses were really allowed to set their own prices.
"I’m getting less chips [but] paying the same amount of money," she
asked, "Is that legal for them to do this?"
"It is not illegal. It is deceptive," Carol Tucker Foreman of the
Consumer Federation of America told Chen. "It was intended to
deceive the consumer. The company hoped you wouldn’t notice, that it
would slip by their customers. You know, it’s a really bad bet in
today’s society — the New York Times will report it, CBS News will
"It’s not illegal, but it’s a little bit sneaky," echoed industry
analyst Emmanuel Goldman in a packaged piece narrated by Hager on
As presumably all shoppers know, the weight is printed on each
bag of chips or box of Cracker Jack, and the number of diapers is
displayed on the outer carton. So it’s tough to see what is so
misleading about changing the packaging as long as the label
accurately reflects the contents. It is true that customers receive
less value for their dollar, but that would be equally true if the
package remained the same and the prices were increased — unit costs
would rise in either case.
Of course, these same networks showed no special regard for
consumers as they "down-counted" their own evening newscasts over
the past several years. Indeed, MediaNomics took a stopwatch to the
January 2, 2001 edition of the CBS Evening News, the one in which
Bowers rued the fact that chip bags now contain fewer chips. That
broadcast offered precisely 18 minutes and 44 seconds of news, after
commercials and promos for other CBS programs are excluded. The CBS
Evening News broadcast from exactly ten years earlier, January 2,
1991, contained 20 minutes 46 seconds of news, calculated using the
In other words, while CBS grumbles that a bag of Tostitos has
dropped in value by just under 7 percent, the CBS Evening News now
contains nearly 10 percent less actual news than it did a decade
ago. At the same time, viewers are subjected to 22 percent more
commercials or program promotions than they were ten years ago. Does
the fact that no one ever told viewers that news stories were being
replaced by money-making ads mean that the networks were being
"sneaky" or "deceptive?"
Here’s what news viewers are getting instead of news: At the
conclusion of the 2001 broadcast, substitute anchor John Roberts
played a lengthy promotion for that night’s edition of 60 Minutes
II, and two of the ads played during commercial breaks were pitches
for upcoming CBS News programs, including a plea for viewers to tune
into the next morning’s Early Show for "the secrets of Survivor II"
— which amounts to a commercial for a commercial.
Viewers were also bombarded with ads for 19 different commercial
products: NyQuil cold medicine, Olay daily facials, Ensure dietary
supplements, Phillips milk of magnesia, Just2Good reduced fat salad
dressing, Gateway digital cameras, Refresh eye drops, Tamiflu flu
medicine, Beltone hearing aids, AFLAC supplemental insurance,
Staples office supplies, One-A-Day vitamins, Caltrate calcium and
soy supplements, Preparation H, Prempro estrogen replacement, Disney
World, Coricidin — a cold remedy for individuals with high blood
pressure, Wisk laundry tablets, and Zantac 75 acid reducer.
TV journalists love to promote themselves as among the true
champions of the average American, while the remainder of the
corporate landscape is focused on grubbier issues such as maximizing
revenue, increasing sales, niche marketing, and self-promotion. In
fact, television news is as profit-driven as any other business, so
their antagonistic attitude towards businessmen who provide
consumers with desired goods and services at a fair price is
inherently contradictory, if not hypocritical.
On the other hand, given that the evening news in recent years
has offered a fairly steady diet of news skewed against
conservatives and the free market, the fact that it has shrunk by a
tenth may not be all that bad.