May 18, 2006

TV producers worried about product placement

By Alex Woodson

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - As the major networks
unveil their fall schedules this week, television writers and
producers took advantage of the high-profile events Wednesday
to express concern about product placement deals, an
increasingly popular way for broadcasters to boost revenues.

"These deals do not take writers into consideration, and we
believe this is unacceptable," Writers Guild of America West
president Patric Verrone said at a news conference attended by
"Desperate Housewives" creator Marc Cherry, "ER" creator John
Wells and "Law & Order: SVU" executive producer Neal Baer.

Baer warned that careless product placement could alienate
the already-diminishing network TV audience and "bring
storytelling to a screeching halt."

Said Cherry: "I haven't been asked to do anything I didn't
want to, but what about writers who work on shows that aren't
big hits? We must establish a policy of consultation and

Cherry did mention, though, that he had been approached by
an automobile manufacturer looking to place its product on an
episode of "Housewives." When Cherry suggested a particular
character to give the car to, the auto company balked because
that character had been portrayed as mentally ill.

Wells shared similar stories in which over-the-counter drug
companies prevented their product being name-checked on "ER"
because, in the context of the show, they caused bad side
effects. Although these side effects were listed on the
packaging of the product, the actors still had to use the long
scientific name when referring to the drug.

Wells also said that he has been approached by a limousine
company that wanted to put together an episode of his other
show, "The West Wing," revolving around its product. Wells
refused, but he reiterated the need for a dialogue among
writers, advertisers and the networks. "I don't think any of us
feel comfortable about letting the market take us wherever it's
going to take us," he said.

WGAW interim executive director David Young said that
compensation for writers working products into the scripts
would not be the overall goal of talks between the union and
networks; artistic integrity is the greater concern. He worried
that writers could begin to use product placement before being
contacted by a company, amounting to a form of "payola."

Previous efforts to start these types of conversations with
networks have been met with "roaring silence," Verrone said.

The networks' chief negotiator, Alliance of Motion Picture
& Television Producers (AMPTP) president Nick Counter, said the
union has not requested any meeting on this issue.

Counter said the networks were open to discussing product
placement and that there already existed a forum to do so, one
established more than a decade ago in collective bargaining to
specifically address creative rights issues in television. The
Committee on the Professional Status of Writers-Television
includes such network reps as CBS head Leslie Moonves and
showrunners including Wells and Baer.

"Even though they're all busy people, if John Wells asks
for a meeting we'd have one as soon as possible," Counter said.
"That's the proper forum and the AMPTP's role is to simply
convene the meeting with these people. What comes out of their
conversations very often ends up in the collective bargaining

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter