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WRITERS GUILD PROTESTS TV PRODUCT PLACEMENTS

Disrupts Ad Age Madison & Vine Advertising Week Session

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Demonstrating against the practice of product placement in TV programs, a group of protestors armed with Writers Guild of America West literature disrupted the Madison & Vine session of Advertising Week at New York University's Skirball Center in Greenwich Village this morning.
Photo: Scott Gries
Writers Guild of America West protestors demonstrated outside of the Madison & Vine session in clothes festooned with commercial promotions. Click to see larger photo.

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Owned by Advertising Age, Madison & Vine is a program of annual conferences as well as a weekly publication focused on the emerging business of mixing advertisements into various kinds of entertainment and journalistic content including TV programs, movies, radio shows, Web sites, video games magazines and other media.

'Runaway growth'
Fliers being distributed by protestors outside the session said WPA West "is concerned about the runaway growth of product integration in reality TV."

One protestor disrupted the discussion inside, a Socratic debate led by Harvard Law professor Arthur Miller, accusing the panelists of not conferring with the creative community when brands are integrated into TV shows.

Panelist Michael Davies, chairman of TV production house Embassy Row, shot back at the heckler by saying he’s a Writer’s Guild member and that producers and their staffs are intimately involved in brand-integration discussions.

“Without that cooperation, there is no integration,” Mr. Davies said.

Jeff Bell engages heckler
Panelist Jeff Bell, vice president at Chrysler and Jeep, spoke directly to the heckler. “Instead of yelling out from the audience, why don’t you come up here and sit on the panel?” he asked, while both he and Mr. Davies stood up from their chairs to ostensibly make room for the protestor. She did not take the stage, though she had argued that writers should be given a seat at the table.

Ben Silverman, CEO of TV producer Reveille, said he was insulted by the heckler’s accusations and gave an example of his comedy The Office, which will include a Levi’s integration in an upcoming episode. Greg Daniels, the show’s executive producer and a Writer’s Guild member, was involved from start to finish, Mr. Silverman said. The storyline had already been created about a character losing weight and showing off his new figure in jeans, so Mr. Silverman approached Levi’s about an integration deal. It could not have happened without the initial idea in the script and the writers’ deft execution of it, he said.

“Greg Daniels drove that deal,” Mr. Silverman said.

'The wrong argument'
Mr. Davies said after the panel that the protestor was misguided about brand integration, especially in reality series. “If it weren’t for marketers stepping up for these shows, they wouldn’t be on the air,” he said. “They’ve picked the wrong argument.”

The protestors outside the conference, dressed as Donald Trump and covered in corporate logos, handed out fliers that detailed some of their complaints. The literature said the WGA West had polled more than 400 members, with 73% saying they found product integration “not too acceptable” or “not at all acceptable.” About the same percentage of members said that “the line between content and advertising needs to be more firmly drawn.”

The protestors on hand seemed to direct their accusations at Mark Burnett Productions, the producer behind The Apprentice and a number of other shows. Conrad Riggs, a partner in that production company, was scheduled to be a member on the panel but canceled shortly before the event.

Recent organizational changes
The Writer’s Guild, marred by infighting between its East Coast and West Coast membership, has been through some radical changes of late.

The Writer’s Guild West has changed leadership, with newly elected President Patric Verrone sweeping into office last week with 68% of the votes. Mr. Verrone’s mandate is to organize non-union work in such areas as animation, cable and reality TV.

The union helped file two recent lawsuits on behalf of reality-show editors and segment producers against networks and producers, alleging violations of state wage and overtime laws.

Further, there has been an ongoing dustup about reality TV, with some union members blaming unscripted shows for lost jobs in scripted TV writing.

Today, in an out-with-the-old-guard move, the WGA West board fired executive director John McLean and created a search committee to find a permanent replacement.

The members of the Writer’s Guild East also just elected a new president, Chris Albers, who ran on a similar campaign of unionizing writing for basic cable, animation and the Internet.

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