TV scribes mount well-placed protest

JOHN BOY WALTON was never required to deliver a soliloquy on the virtues of Oreo cookies. But if Oreos existed in the Blue Ridge Mountains 75 years ago, and if the Waltons were still on the air, he probably would.

Just consider two episodes of the WB’s “7th Heaven” that aired in April. (“7th Heaven,” which revolves around a Christian minister and his seven kids, recently matched “The Waltons” as TV’s  longest-running family drama.)

 Thanks to an endorsement deal with Kraft Foods, flattering references to Oreos were threaded into at least five different storylines across two installments of “7th Heaven.” In one episode, there was a lengthy debate about whether Oreos should be dunked in milk, licked or twisted apart; and one character proposed to another by concealing an engagement ring in the cookie’s sticky, white frosting.

“If I were the creator, I would have had to take a shower after watching some of that stuff,” “Desperate Housewives” showrunner Marc Cherry observed after the footage was screened at a WGA West press conference last week in New York.

The press conference — which also featured John Wells and Neal Bear and was held Wednesday, a few blocks from Carnegie Hall, where CBS was unveiling its fall schedule to advertisers — was part of the WGA’s ambitious grass-roots campaign to establish a new set of sponsorship standards for its members.

Since 2005, WGA protests over product placement have become a fixture of TV and advertising events — union members even appeared in Donald Trump masks to disrupt an Advertising Week panel in New York last fall (“The Apprentice,” which has an especially promiscuous relationship with advertisers, featured 3,577 product “occurrences” in 2005, according to Nielsen).

AMONG OTHER TACTICS, the WGA has devised Internet parodies of “Survivor” and “The Apprentice” (including a Web site called “The Subservient Donald” based on a well-known Burger King ad). And in November, it issued a white paper on “stealth advertising in the entertainment industry” and threatened to call on the FCC to investigate the practice.

Product placement is a shrewd wedge issue for the WGA, which remains at loggerheads with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers over things like homevideo and Internet revenue.

It’s never hard to rally people around the idea that there’s a sinister, stealth campaign by advertisers to smuggle commercial messages ever deeper into our daily lives. (Just read Vance Packard’s 1958 bestseller, “The Hidden Persuader,” which argued that Madison Avenue was behind a secret conspiracy to manipulate the American public).

But if product placement is a dirty business, as Cherry suggests, it’s also increasingly commonplace. Nielsen Media has reported that the number of primetime product placement “occurrences” rose 30% in 2005, a trend that shows no sign of reversing itself. 

And it’s hard to separate the WGA’s stance on product placement from the threat of labor unrest that hovers over all its AMPTP confrontations, which have fueled anxieties that the union is spoiling for a strike when its contract expires in 2007.

THAT ANXIETY DEEPENED Thursday when the AMPTP published an open letter to the WGA in the form of a full-page ad in Daily Variety. The language of the letter was severe: “Your attempts to interfere with our business hurts not only all other Guilds and Unions in our industry, but also your members whose residuals, pension and health plans can be compromised.”

But when it comes to product placement, there are signs that the two sides might mend fences. In the press conference last week, Cherry, Wells and Bear didn’t address the idea that TV writers should be compensated for writing ads into shows. The mood was congenial. There were no Trump masks. The focus was on the creative autonomy of TV writers, a far less contentious issue than financial compensation.

When I spoke to WGA president Patric Verone, he echoed that point. Compensation “is less of an issue,” he said. “But it’s not a non-issue. If we’re being asked to write ads into programming, we should be paid as copywriters.”

Verone last week said that the guild’s request for a dialogue on the issue has been met with “a roaring silence.” But AMPTP president Nicholas Counter told me that the organization is willing to discuss the matter, provided the discussion occurs in the “proper forum” — the Committee on the Professional Status of Writers, a body that Wells used to chair.

“No matter who asks for the meeting,” Counter said, “the meeting will take place.”

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