Gov't will exclude alcohol, junk food, gambling

LONDON — Product placement is finally coming to Blighty. But don’t expect to see cans of Coke displayed, “American Idol-style,” on the judges’ desk in “The X Factor.”

Or genuine branded pints of beer served at the bar of the Rover’s Return, the fictional pub in ITV’s flagship soap “Coronation Street.”

The new regulations, announced Feb. 9, outlaw products that are high in fat, sugar (hence the ban on Coke) and salt, plus alcohol and numerous other categories including tobacco, from being plugged in programs.

However, the loosening of restrictions paves the way for dozens of brands, from autos to cell phones, to pay to have their goods displayed in TV shows.

Announcing the greenlight for product placement in the U.K., media minister Ben Bradshaw hailed the decision, which brings Britain into line with the rest of Europe — excluding Denmark, where product placement remains banned — as an economic lifeline for hard-pressed commercial webs.

Said Bradshaw: “Adherence to our current position in which U.K. TV program-making cannot benefit at all from the income potentially to be generated by product placement would lead to continuing damage to its finances at a time when this crucial part of our creative industries needs all the support we can give it.”

The battle to introduce what some commentators dismissed as a “watered down” form of product placement was won by webs and producers in the face of hefty protests from some consumer groups who claimed it risked damaging the integrity of U.K. TV shows.

When Bradshaw announced a public consultation on product placement last fall, he received 1,500 submissions, most of them hostile.

But with free-to-air webs such as ITV hit by a double whammy of a fragile economy and new digital outlets for advertisers, plus fears about less money being spent on local production, the U.K. Government decided to largely ignore those opposing the move.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” says ITV’s commercial director Rupert Howell. “The Government should be applauded for seeing the light even if some of the restrictions are unnecessary and over-fussy.”

Estimates of how much coin product placement is likely to generate annually vary widely — from around £50 million ($78 million) to more than £150 million ($235 million).

U.K. producers’ lobby group Pact believes makers of British programs stand to profit roughly $113 million a year.

What most parties agree on is that the amount of money involved is likely to begin as a trickle before substantial sums of money start to flow into the coffers of broadcasters and producers.

“In five years’ time there is no reason why the British product placement market couldn’t be worth £100 million,” Howell says.

What seems certain is that U.K.-style product placement is likely to be much less in-your-face than the kind commonplace in U.S. shows and movies.

“The U.K. public (is) not going to be quite as accepting of the blatant brand images that we see from American-style product placement,” says Liza Read, managing director of London product placement agency Totality Media’s 1st Place.

Read adds that the decision by the British government to allow product placement in the U.K. is long overdue, because “we have been working at a disadvantage to U.S. imports.”

Only time will tell if auds start to complain about what they regard as too many blatant plugs in “Coronation Street” or ITV crime skein “The Bill.”

But, as Read suggests, the irony is that for years British viewers have been more than happy to enjoy endless episodes of “Friends” and other U.S. acquisitions despite blatant product placement.

The beer in the Rover’s Return may still be unbranded, but commercial logic has dictated that Blighty must bow to the inevitable.

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