Product Integration Protest From TV Writers

Writers Guild President: 'Columbo Doesn't Drive a Maserati'

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Against the backdrop of the TV network's upfront presentations in New York this week, the Writers Guild of America West made its own noise in New York to highlight its concerns about product integration's deleterious effect on the artistic integrity of writing.
Patric M. Verrone
Patric M. Verrone

Creators and show-runners of TV's top shows, including Neal Baer ("Law & Order: SVU"), Marc Cherry ("Desperate Housewives"), Carol Mendelsohn ("CSI") and John Wells ("ER"), expressed their support for WGAW's hopes to negotiate a formal agreement with the networks and studios to regulate writers' participation in product integration deals.

WGAW's president, Patric M. Verrone, explained the migration of product integration from reality TV to scripted series gravely concerns his membership. "When it goes beyond putting a can of soup on the table, when it's putting a can of soup on the table and having the characters talk about the creamy goodness of the soup, or when their next door neighbor has to hear all the recipes, that's when it encroaches into our sector," he said.

Staying true to characters
The writers' primary concern is that they will be forced to work a product into a story line in a way that is not organic. They don't want to be compelled to have their characters use products that are inappropriate to their personalities or lifestyles. Marc Cherry spoke of how he was approached by a high-end car manufacturer who wanted one of his characters to drive a certain vehicle. Mr. Cherry explained that the audience had already seen his characters driving vehicles suited to them and he didn't want to reshape his narrative to explain a change. He turned the car manufacturer down.

Mr. Cherry was able to turn down the deal because his shows are successful and he has clout with the network. However, creators of new or less-successful shows may not have that luxury.

"New programs are the most vulnerable to these negotiations," Mr. Verrone said. "They will be in a position where they can't say no." Mr. Verrone emphasized that his membership is not against product integration. They just want to be part of the process. Mr. Verrone feels the issue must be addressed before the writers' collective-bargaining agreement expires in October 2007. "We're looking for consultation from the start. Where it's appropriate, we want the ability to say no."

Working in concert
An inappropriate product integration will be obvious to the audience and turn away consumers. "Columbo doesn't drive a Maserati," Mr. Verrone said. He explained that creator input will enable advertisers to integrate their product into the program in a way that will not alienate viewers. "The more in concert you are able to work with the writers and editors," he said, "the more a savvy viewer is going to be forgiving because you're going to be able to do the integrations with more sophistication."

Despite his regret about the escalation product integration in TV, Mr. Verrone said he recognizes it as a potentially necessary for the survival of his medium. "We have to be attentive that that business is changing and that the 30-second spot is not what it once was. We want television to survive as an advertiser-supported broadcast medium," Mr. Verrone said. "We're perfectly willing to discuss how to make the media survive by integrating advertising, but not if it's forced down our throats so that we have to force it down the viewers' throats."
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