Media minister Burnham won't loosen rules

LONDON The Rover’s Return is Blighty’s most famous fictional pub, for more than 40 years a watering hole for the folk of ITV’s “Coronation Street,” the U.K.’s most popular soap.

In an ideal world the drinks served to regulars would carry the labels of genuine beer manufacturers, who would pay for the privilege of having their brands displayed to millions of TV viewers six times a week.

But product placement, widespread in the U.S., is outlawed in the U.K. and that’s the way it is likely to remain, despite a relaxation in European Union rules which means that by next year member states are free to adopt the practice.

Last week British media minister Andy Burnham dropped a bombshell when he used his first major speech on broadcasting to declare that product placement would only be introduced over his dead body.

He warned that putting genuine brands in TV soaps like “Coronation Street” would “contaminate” them, and undermine the high regard British shows enjoy globally.

“There is a risk that, at the very moment when television needs to do all it can to show it can be trusted, that we elide the distinction between programs and adverts,” Burnham says.

This was a reference to the phone-in quiz scandals that rocked all British terrestrial webs last year and led last month to ITV being fined more than $10 million.

“As a viewer, I don’t want to feel the script has been written by the commercial marketing director,” Burnham continues.

“British programming has an integrity that is revered around the world, and I don’t think we should put that hard-won reputation up for sale.”

ITV was furious that the minister came down so hard against product placement, which conservative estimates suggest could be worth around $70 million a year within two years of being introduced. The broadcaster’s stock price, already battered, fell by 3% on the news.

Alongside other British broadcasters and production companies, the webs were banking on the Government falling into line with Brussels and had been talking up product placement as a way to provide some much-needed extra advertising coin.

Rupert Howell, ITV’s managing director of brand and commercial, says: “Following the liberalization around product placement in EC law, we see carefully regulated product placement as a legitimate revenue stream that has the added benefit of supporting the production of original U.K. content.

“An effective regulatory regime would guard against some of the excesses seen in the U.S. and protect the interests of viewers. We have no incentive to alienate viewers and would absolutely support parameters that ensure editorial integrity within programming is maintained.”

ITV was particularly disappointed that the Government had set out its stall ahead of the debate over product placement; Burnham’s department is due to consult on the issue this summer.

Privately the network thinks Burnham, touted as a possible future leader of the British Labor Party, is playing to the court of public opinion and that his views are “old-fashioned.”

ITV is not alone. The U.K. advertising industry regards the Government’s stance as “a wasted opportunity.”

Medwyn Jones, partner at Harbottle and Lewis, a London law firm specializing in media and entertainment, is also disappointed.

He says: “Simply to look at the apparent excesses of the use of product placement in American programming, and reject any relaxation of the rules in the U.K. is both to patronize the viewing public and to put the U.K. production industry at a significant competitive disadvantage.”

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