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Product placement worries TV producers

On ‘7th Heaven’ the characters eat Oreos, but where does it stop?
/ Source: The Associated Press

On the CBS comedy “How I Met Your Mother” this week, Marshall and Lily were in the midst of an argument that led to breaking their engagement when they suddenly decided they were hungry, and headed to Red Lobster.

They were shown rapturously dining on seafood before the show broke for a more traditional commercial: for Red Lobster.

Such product integration has some of Hollywood’s top TV producers worried. During the week that broadcast networks introduce their new fall shows to advertisers, the producers held a news conference Wednesday to demand networks talk to them about being included in discussions about product integration.

“There’s growing concern that if the advertisers start to dictate a story line, just how horrible that would be,” said Marc Cherry, creator of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives.”

Product placement — a can of soda casually placed on a table while the characters are standing around it — has been a part of TV for decades, usually creating little controversy. Producers John Wells of “ER” and Neil Baer of “Law & Order: SVU” say they’re worried about being forced to use products in their stories in ways that make them look silly.

Digital video recorders only increase the pressureThere’s increased pressure toward integrated ads from several directions. Advertisers are worried that digital video recorders are encouraging more and more consumers to fast-forward through commercials. Between dwindling viewership and increased competition from the Internet, networks are anxious to keep their sponsors happy.

Product integration has been more prevalent on reality shows, where contestants recently won a bottle of mouthwash in a reward challenge and let it swirl around their mouths like fine wine.

On the scripted show “7th Heaven” last month, there was an extended story line in which the Camden family went on about their love for Oreos, including whether they preferred to dunk them in milk or screw the cookie apart. An anchorman in “Pepper Dennis” was recently shown receiving a case of teeth whiteners, and using one on the air.

“What happens is that storytelling can come to a screeching halt under an order to tout products on television,” Baer said.

Cherry said he wrote one scene at a mall parking lot in cooperation with a car manufacturer that worked because Gabrielle made a joke out of it. But he was recently approached by another auto company that wanted to be featured but wasn’t happy with the characters Cherry made available — including Bree’s sociopathic son. The deal fell through.

With a hit show, Cherry had the power to say no. He wonders if that will always be the case.

Products can’t be shown in a negative lightWells said that on “ER,” characters have had to use generic names for drugs because the manufacturers didn’t want their products associated with bad side effects. And while automakers love to see their cars on display in a hit show, they don’t want to see them involved in a crash — which is limiting on a show about a hospital emergency room.

“It’s very difficult to tell dramatic stories if you have a major product and nothing goes wrong with the major product,” he said.

Wells also said he had a meeting with a limousine manufacturer who wanted “The West Wing” to build an entire episode on how important the presidential limousine was. He had to gently tell them that viewers wouldn’t buy it.

The producers, representing the Writers Guild of America, said they recognize ad integration is here to stay. What they want is to negotiate with networks a process that gives creators a say in what can and can’t be done, and they said the networks haven’t been willing to put that on paper.

They’d like to get a cut of these deals, too.

“There’s no question that it’s important that the discussions be appropriately held with our creative people, which we are doing,” said Leslie Moonves, CBS Corp. president. “But everyone has to be aware that the world is changing.”

The producers said they want formal talks on the issue to begin before negotiations for a new guild contract take place next year.

“I don’t think any of us are comfortable allowing the marketplace to take us where it’s going to take us,” Wells said.