|WGA West President West Patric M. Verrone has orchestrated attention-getting stunts to highlight his union's position on brand integration.
Why you need to know him: Mr. Verrone is leading the WGA's charge to get TV networks to disclose on-air which of their shows have product integrations, and to have productions compensate writers for working brands into programming. Madison & Vine chatted with Mr. Verrone about his views on branded entertainment and what he'd like to see Hollywood do about it.
Credentials: Mr. Verrone, who was elected to the top post at the WGA West last fall, has spent the past 20 years writing for TV shows such as "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson," "The Simpsons," "The Critic" and "Futurama." He has a law degree from Boston College and also is a graduate of Harvard College, where he wrote for The Lampoon.
Many producers say that marketers' brand-integration fees go directly into the production budgets and, without that money, the shows would have to film outside the U.S., would have lower production values, would have fewer writers, etc. Do you believe that? "I don't think there is a uniform system of how branded dollars are funneled into productions, but shows that refuse to do branded integrations still seem to exist and even thrive. Production values don't increase and writing staffs don't grow when a successful show suddenly discovers it can do branded integrations. It is merely one form of financing that replaces another."
What does the WGA want to happen in regard to brand integration? "We want our members, and all creative talent in this industry, to be appropriately consulted and fairly compensated."
Is it realistic to ask that writers be paid for weaving brands into TV shows? Do you think it will ever happen? "It's not our chief concern, but it is a big concern for the Screen Actors Guild and their members."
You've said that brand integration is blurring the line too much between entertainment and advertising. Do you think it shouldn't be happening at all? "Not at all. Brand integration has its place in a medium that has paid the bills from its inception thanks to advertising. The difficulty comes when the firewall between entertainment and advertisement is forced against the will or without the consultation of the creative talent who design the entertainment portion of that equation. The exception is children's programming, where I don't think it should happen at all."
Consumer watchdog group Commercial Alert has been asking for several years for Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission rules to require TV networks to disclose product integration. It hasn't happened yet. Last year, the FTC rejected the petition; the FCC hasn't ruled. Do you think you can do what Commercial Alert has been unable to do? How is your approach different? "Disclosure is a very real concern for viewers and consumers and we, as creators, want to make sure that we aren't part of a process that fools or sneaks something by our audience. We approve and applaud Commercial Alert's approach, and I don't think they've reached the finish line yet, so we will continue to support their efforts. Our own conversations with certain FCC commissioners have been fruitful and productive, but we have found much more traction in bringing this discussion directly to advertisers, and the studios and networks that employ us."
Do you believe that American consumers are comfortable with products integrated into their TV shows, as some research says? "Sure, if it's done appropriately and discreetly. When it is shoehorned in or goes over the top, I think viewers react negatively and, ultimately, no one is served by that, especially the advertisers."
Product integration is expanding further into scripted shows. Do you think this trend will continue and do you think it's any better or worse than marketers' embedding products into reality TV? "I know it is continuing, and I make no distinction between scripted and reality TV when I say that clumsy, forced integrations that don't co-opt the creative elements of the show are counterproductive."
The WGA and other union groups have been very vocal, picketing high-profile events, including those sponsored by Ad Age, including crashing meetings. Was this your strategy, and what do you think it's done for your argument? "It was our strategy for some time, when we needed to use 'vocal' means to get attention. Now, I believe, our opinion is being heard and even sought out. Witness this interview."
Other than those efforts, what has the WGA done to get its point across? "We went to Europe to meet with members of the European Parliament who have been considering relaxing the rules that restrict placement and integration over there. We also held a press conference at the network upfronts in New York last May with several top-rung show-runners. They eloquently and effectively enunciated our concerns. We have been meeting often with our high-level show-runners to both exchange information and develop strategies."
What's your next step? "We intend to continue to speak out on the subject and ask our members who are in a position of authority to resist integrations when they are overbearing and inappropriate. We will also continue to strive to get reality-television writers and storytellers under a WGA contract so that they feel empowered creatively."
What are the worst examples you've seen of clumsy product integration? "We brought a reel of clips to Europe that included a variety of both scripted and reality-show integrations, some of which still make me shiver. There was one in particular that involved a cosmetics integration on a sitcom that included a hand-cream double-entendre that still makes my skin crawl, and all the lotion in the world won't make it go away."
Any good ones? "Someone pointed out to me that 'Driving Miss Daisy' is a two-hour Cadillac commercial. I guess that's about as good as they get."
What's the strategy behind the website productinvasion.com? What kind of response have you gotten? "Again, that was part of our initial strategy to just get attention. In that case, using more subtle, even viral means. Because the website was featured in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal and International Herald Tribune, among others, I'd say it's been a positive response."
What's on your TiVo? "Late-night variety shows that are on past my bedtime. Also lots of animation because, well, it's what I do for a living. The perfect crossovers are late-night animated Adult Swim shows like 'The Venture Brothers,' which I consider something of a guilty pleasure because it's not covered by the Writer's Guild."
What do you do in your free time? "I run a union, oversee one TV show [Cartoon Network's 'Class of 3000'], write for another ['Futurama's' direct-to-DVD movies] and have a wife and three kids. What free time?"