OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

When Americans, particularly those who make a living in showbusiness or marketing, wonder if something will go over big, they ask: "Will it play in Peoria?". The question now being asked is:"Will it be boffo in Baghdad?"

In a first for the US media, the major television news operations are providing the federal government with footage from their flagship nightly shows to be broadcast abroad, in this instance as part of the effort to help rebuild Iraq after the war. The programme is being beamed from Air Force planes under the aegis of the United States Information Agency, with the network newscasts subtitled in Arabic.

Taking part are ABC, CBS, Fox News, NBC and PBS, the public broadcasting network. CNN demurred, citing qualms about compromising its independence, and the BBC, asked to participate, also declined.

The goal is "to be an example for a free press in an American tradition", Norman Pattiz, the media mogul serving as the liaison between the networks' news divisions and the White House, told The New York Times. "The only way now that they have to understand America is through their indigenous media," Pattiz said, referring to the Iraqis. "And the view that what they get is not what we think is the fair and accurate view."

The networks that agreed to pitch in - it's an "appropriately patriotic gesture", Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, told the Times - did so on the basis that the programmes would be presented uncut and unedited. But there is something missing: commercials.

Yes, the first glimpse Iraq is getting of the vaunted American media is minus advertising. "But that's the best part," many on Madison Avenue would wail, and they would not be too far off the mark. If the United States has come to stand for anything on the world stage, it is our economy, and the cornerstone of capitalism has become the 30-second television commercial.

One could make a case for omitting commercials because the products and services being peddled are, of course, not for sale in Iraq - not officially, anyway. Or perhaps the Iraqi people, accustomed to state-run media, would perceive the commercials to be for brands preferred, endorsed or sanctioned by the government. In which case, imagine what they would make of spots for American Airlines, Federal Express, Bush Brothers Baked Beans or even Busch Beer.

But clearly the entrepreneurial spirit is on display in Baghdad now that the fighting has stopped. An article in USA Today, proclaiming that "the clamour of commerce is heard once again in the Iraqi capital," described crowded sidewalk markets packed with bargain hunters reminiscent of the post-war Berlin bazaar scenes in the Billy Wilder film A Foreign Affair.

All that suggests phrases such as: "And now a word from our sponsor" and "brought to you by ..." might not be completely out of place one day soon.

That naturally stimulates speculation. Which agency will be the first to plant its flag in post-war Baghdad? One thing is sure: its parent is likely to be an American- or British-owned outfit such as Interpublic, Omnicom or WPP. An agency owned by Havas or Publicis most certainly would be, to paraphrase a line from another classic film, All About Eve, what the French call de trop.

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