TV Writers Want Cut of Product-Placement Deals

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TV shows have been stuffing Campbell's soup and Diet Coke into sitcoms and reality shows for sometime. But the Writers Guild says product placement has reached a level that goes beyond the standard contract. The Guild plans to push the studios and producers to share the estimated $2 billion in revenue generated by these deals. NPR's Kim Masters reports.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The television networks are busy selling ads for fall's shows. You notice how we said ads and shows as though they were different things? Might not always be, because there will be product integration - the trick of weaving merchandise into the program's plotline.

Now that it's possible to fast-forward through commercials, the strategy insures that viewers actually see a particular mouthwash or detergent. And if you don't like this, imagine you were a TV writer.

NPR's Kim Masters reports.

KIM MASTERS reporting:

Product integration is different from product placement, a long established practice in which an advertiser might pay to have a character in a show hold a certain brand of soda. With product integration, the idea is to draw the audience's attention to what advertisers want to sell. Like this mention of a moisturizer on the UPN sitcom Half and Half.

Unidentified Speaker: I say Ole to Olay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman: I'm going to go home tonight and try it on my abs. Hell, considering the magic it worked on her, I want to use it all over.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MASTERS: 7th Heaven on the WB has hawked another product. Try to guess what it is.

(Soundbite of TV Show "7th Heaven")

Mr. DAVID GALLAGHER (Actor): (As Simon Camden) You know, I used to be a twist and lick, now I'm a dunker. My whole family are dunkers, except for Sam and David. I guess they'll grow into it.

MASTERS: If that's not clear enough...

(Soundbite of TV Show "7th Heaven")

Mr. STEPHEN COLLINS (Actor): (As Eric Camden) Oreos are my favorite.

MASTERS: The need to come up with such snappy lines has become a matter of increasing concern to the Writers Guild of America. Recently, the group assembled a panel of powerful writer/producers to talk about creative issues that arise when a product must be written into a script.

Among them was Neal Baer, executive producer of Law & Order: SVU.

Dr. NEAL BAER (Executive Producer, Law & Order: SVU): I don't know if Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson dunk or twist, but I hope I don't have to find out.

MASTERS: Baer has a lot of clout. He acknowledges he's never been pressured to integrate a product into his show. But others might not be able to say the same. Marc Cherry is the creator of Desperate Housewives.

Mr. MARC CHERRY (Creator, Desperate Housewives): The thing that concerns me is, what of the writers who worked on shows that are not big hits? They're shows that are on the bubble or just getting started? I don't know that networks and studios will always be quite so respectful of those writers.

MASTERS: Cherry and Baer are not trying to eliminate product integration. After all, it helps to finance their programs. But they worry that if it's too clumsy, audiences will change the channel. So they want networks and studios to give them a formal voice in deciding how to handle it to insure that it's subtle, or as they would put it - organic.

John Wells, the producer of The West Wing and ER, says he's been stymied by requests to have the emergency room doctors use certain products.

Mr. JOHN WELLS (Producer, ER): And my question's always been the same. It's very difficult to do dramatic stories in which you've got a major product and nothing ever goes wrong with the product. What's exactly dramatic about it if we only sit around and talk about how great the product is?

MASTERS: Barbara Brogliatti, a spokesperson for the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, says studios and networks face high costs and fragmenting audiences. So they're experimenting with new ways to attract money from advertisers.

Ms. BARBARA BROGLIATTI (Spokesperson, Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers): Broadcast television is free only to the viewers. It costs a lot of money to make. And this is a small way to help reduce the deficit; it's not increasing our profits.

MASTERS: But Brogliatti says networks and studios also worry about alienating audiences by overdoing it. So she says they're prepared to discuss creative aspects of product integration with the guild.

Kim Masters, NPR News, Los Angeles.

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