WASHINGTON — Television scribes have formally requested help from the Federal Communications Commission in their disagreement with networks over the increasing use of product integration.
During prepared testimony Thursday before a commission field hearing in Chicago on media ownership, Writers Guild of America West prexy Patric M. Verrone asked the FCC to adopt a rule requiring nets to disclose to viewers when “branded advertising and other forms of product integration” have been inserted into TV programs.
“We believe that, in order to protect viewers, there has to be disclosure that adequately reveals product integration,” Verrone said. “The FCC should require a crawl to run at the bottom of the screen during the integration that would identify the product, its promoter, and the fact that the writers and actors do not personally endorse the product’s use.”
Citing Nielsen research data, Verrone told commissioners that product integration — which incorporates brands into story narratives without telling viewers — occurred more than 4,000 times in primetime last year.
“Once only a mainstay of reality television, it has crept steadily into all programming,” Verrone said. “On NBC’s Emmy-winning ‘The Office,’ characters spend entire episodes working at Staples. On CBS’ highly rated ‘CSI,’ characters promote the features of a General Motors Denali. Oreo cookies were a major part of the plot in two episodes of the CW family drama ‘7th Heaven.’ On ‘Smallville,’ contact lenses prompted a crime fighter to say, ‘Acuvue to the rescue,’ proving that even Superman is immune to neither Kryptonite nor product integrations.”
The practice undermines the integrity of both writers and actors, Verrone charged. “When writers are told we must incorporate a commercial product into the storylines we’ve written, we cease to be creators. We become advertisers ourselves. Actors are subjected to forced endorsement when their character must shill the products without compensation or consultation.”
Viewers are the ultimate losers because “product integration exploits the emotional connection viewers have with shows and their characters in order to sell merchandise,” Verrone said.
In recent contract negotiations with networks and movie studios, the WGAW proposed inclusion of a clause “defining product integration and requiring that the writer of television or theatrical motion pictures be afforded the right of prior consultation and effective participation in decisions concerning proposed product integrations.”
In the past, FCC commissioner Jonathan Adelstein has expressed concern that product integration may violate rules against payola.
Verrone also repeated points he made at an earlier FCC field hearing on media ownership — that increasing consolidation decreases creative expression as more outlets are concentrated in fewer hands.