TV Product Placements Are Just Business as Usual

Commentator John Ridley, a writer and director, says writers should embrace product integration because it pays the bills.

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MORNING EDITION commentator John Ridley has been closely following product integration. He is a Hollywood writer and a member of the Writer's Guild.

(Soundbite of Texaco Star Theater Theme Song)

Unidentified Men: (Singing) Oh, we're the men of Texaco. We work from Maine to Mexico. There's nothing like the Texaco...

JOHN RIDLEY reporting:

Recall that? Yeah, that's the theme song Uncle Miltie used to do his drag shtick to back in the day on the Texaco Star Theater. The operative words there - Texaco Star Theater. See, ad-fat programming has pretty much been the foundation of broadcasting since before the days when Jack Webb used to take a break from nailing the bad guys to pitch America Fatima cigarettes.

Yeah, the Writer's Guild might bee-otch about the vast conspiracy forcing them to do product integration alchemy. But malevolent ad men browbeating writers into pimping their wares holds about the same level of peril as that killer bee invasion we've been promised for years. It just ain't happening.

It's more likely, when it happens at all, the level and manner of product integration is left to the writers themselves, which is actually in the best interest of the company looking to pitch their product. Better the goods or service is referenced creatively and memorably as Kenny Rogers' chicken was in Seinfeld or Burger King in Arrested Development.

I mean, come on. There's a reason people talk about that stuff the next day at the water cooler - or Evian dispenser, keeping with the theme. And for every writer who fears the future of product placement, you're likely to find as many who dig the level of verisimilitude using real products brings.

Characters don't have to listen to some nebulous sounding MP3 player; they can call it an iPod. Or they can get a message on their Blackberry rather than some e-mail push device. Or slip in another reference to Evian water as an ironic comment on the whole concept of product integration.

So what up then with the Writers' Guild girding for war - hoisting the standard of artistic integrity as if some cache of museum quality sitcoms and reality shows were being sacked by the Huns. I figure it's got less to do with artistic integrity than financial security.

They're aiming to break off some of that billion-plus dollars in revenue generated by product placement deals, which is cool. I've got no problem with the Guild trying to put a little extra loot in my pocket. But same as with most labor versus management battles, this one will be waged on the field of public perception. And on that turf, it's easy to sell the average working Joe on a struggle for art, than a play for percentage of billions of bucks.

But since The Man is the one who makes broadcast television possible, and as it's harder for advertisers to get people to sit through commercials, should writers even be hacking the hand that's feeding them. I mean, if you're working on a skunk farm, you can't get mad when the shiznit stinks.

Probably, the Guild and its members would be better served with trying to, well, secure more work for its writers in an ever-shrinking job market. Or, ooh, how about getting more work for women and minority writers like they've been promising for decades. Problem is, that leadership requires more than just artistic integrity, but also the moral kind.

INSKEEP: Commentator John Ridley is a writer and director. His new graphic novel series is The American Way. Did we just place the name of a book series he's selling into this news program? Anyway, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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