When a name-brand product shows up in a TV show, it's most likely no accident. With TV's traditional advertising model threatened by new technologies, networks are increasingly allowing marketers to integrate their pitches into the story scripts themselves. But that arrangement doesn't sit well with TV's writers. Brooke talks to Writers Guild west president Patric Verrone about the problems with product placement.
BOB GARFIELD:: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The NBC sitcom "Seinfeld" famously made use of products in its plotlines, from Junior Mints to Drake's Coffee Cakes. Now, the show's producers claim they took no money for the practice of citing Snapple or Pez as pop culture icons, but the show is credited with - or blamed for - breaking down a decades-old resistance to product placement in prime time. Well, if Hollywood once had an aversion to product placement, these days it's more of an addiction. Last year, the use of products in filmed entertainment was up 44 percent and generated more than one billion dollars in revenues. In TV alone, product-related revenues skyrocketed 84 percent. The money is good, but what about the art and what about the ethics? The Writers Guild of America has had it up to here with being asked to integrate products into plotlines where they don't belong, and it's devised a "Code of Conduct" it wants Hollywood to follow. Patric Verrone is the President of the Writers Guild of America, west, and he joins us now. Welcome to the show.
PATRIC VERRONE: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what's your main beef here?
PATRIC VERRONE: Well, I hesitate to use the word "beef," particularly without a brand in front of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
PATRIC VERRONE: We, as writers and creators of television and movies, have come to the conclusion that we're not ad writers, we are storytellers and we develop characters. And it's become more and more de rigueur that we're being asked to integrate products and brands into television. "Seinfeld" informally and inventively used real products to ground the show in a sense of reality. Now we're being asked to put, you know, not just a bowl of cereal on the table, but to talk about the nutritional value [LAUGHS] and the - how delicious that bowl of cereal is.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why is the Writers Guild particularly concerned with this issue right now?
PATRIC VERRONE: The information I'm getting from our members is that more and more they're being told that they have to put products into their storylines. And in the world of reality television, this has become pandemic. "Survivor," "The Apprentice" - these are shows that are built around particular brands who pay to have the virtues of their products extolled by the contestants.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, I know that the people who assemble the stories for reality television are not now members of the Writers Guild. The Writers Guild would like them to be, it says, so that it can help protect them. Is this a labor issue then for you, this product placement issue, or is it an ethical issue?
PATRIC VERRONE: Well, I think it's all a piece of the same whole. I mean, we've found that the writers and editors of reality who aren't covered by the union contracts are the ones that the networks and the producers have been able to push around and use as a proving grounds for the product integration scheme. And it seems as though the [CHUCKLES] market saturation has increased to the point that now the companies, now the producers can go to sitcoms and dramas and say well, you got to do it here too. Because of digital video recorders, consumers and viewers are speeding through the commercials, and so advertisers are finding that they need new ways to insinuate their products into shows.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But if the networks, which are actually your bread and butter, have any chance to survive, don't they have to find alternative ways of bringing in that ad revenue?
PATRIC VERRONE: Well, I think they're finding that they can do one of two things. First, they can actually begin to deliver directly to viewers on a pay-per-view basis. And - [OVERTALK]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And, in fact, we'll be addressing that in just a few minutes.
PATRIC VERRONE: All right. Well, [LAUGHS] but the second point is there's a concern from a public policy point of view. For generations there have been disclosure rules that the FCC enforces in terms of how products can be integrated into the programming, and these shows either don't do that or it's in a tiny font at the end of the show that speeds by at 100 miles an hour, even faster than our credits go by these days.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what exactly is the Writers Guild calling for here? Do you favor - [OVERTALK]
PATRIC VERRONE: We're - [BOTH AT ONCE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - an all-out ban on product placement deals?
PATRIC VERRONE: We want to be part of the discussion. There was a time when television was done based on knowledge or forethought that there was going to be product placement. And the people working on that show knew that it was a Texaco Star Theater production. Nowadays we're finding people getting the kind of job that they think is going to be a traditional show, and then all of a sudden they're forced to also become advertisers. We need to develop protocols so that people either know about ahead of time or are compensated for the kind of work that they're being asked to do now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I did notice in your white paper that part of the problem is that the writers are getting none of this additional product placement revenue. And I wonder, does a real part of this issue here come down to money? I mean, if writers were included in the product placement deals, if they were actually receiving a cut of the cash that the advertisers are paying, would the Writers Guild be making such a stink about the practice?
PATRIC VERRONE: It would be harder for us to organize a resolute [CHUCKLES] opposition to it. But one of the presidents of the networks said recently that we would have round-the-clock product integration if it wasn't for the resistance of talent. And so, you know, talent [CHUCKLES], in this industry at least, if you pay them appropriately, you know, resistance falls. But that's - [OVERTALK]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS]
PATRIC VERRONE: - that's not our chief goal here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But, as you're saying, it's that you have all of these ethical issues, you've got these labor issues, you want those reality show writers that aren't covered by the Guild to get included into the Guild, and then you also want a piece of the pie. And if, say, two of these three were taken care of, there probably wouldn't be this white paper.
PATRIC VERRONE: If you're asking me my bottom line in negotiations, well, I'm not going to reveal that. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Thank you very much.
PATRIC VERRONE: Thank you, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Patric Verrone is the President of the Writers Guild of America, west.