While SAG has been fighting product integration in its ongoing negotiations with the AMPTP, Hollywood writers have been fighting it in Washington DC. For non-insiders, that’s when Aiden on Sex And The City keeps talking about KFC, or when The Office refers to real corporations like Staples. (Though episodes of 30 Rock keep spoofing the practice, like when Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin spoke dialogue praising Verizon Wireless, and then Fey said directly to the camera, “Can we have our money now?”) Specifically, the WGAW, which attempted to bargain this issue with the moguls and got nowhere, has asked FCC chairman Kevin Martin to help protect creative artists and audiences from product integration and its increase in use within the entertainment industry. The guild also called for a mandate on “real time” disclosure. In response to today’s decision by the Federal Communications Commission to issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on product integration in TV programming, WGAW issued this statement:
“While the WGAW applauds the FCC decision to seek federal rules to address the increasingly pervasive use of product integration in today’s television programming, the Writers Guild urges the FCC to require on-screen ‘real-time’ disclosure when product integration occurs, in order to make viewers fully aware they are watching a paid advertisement. The WGAW believes the most fair and effective way to alert consumers that products have been integrated into programming is real-time disclosure whenever a product is being mentioned, referred to, and/or exhibited, to help viewers differentiate TV programming from paid advertising.”
Among other concrete actions, the WGAW has called for the FCC to establish guidelines requiring on-screen real-time” disclosure on TV programming whenever product integration occurs “to make viewers aware of the range of products they are overtly – and more often covertly – being sold”. The WGAW has been active in the area of product integration fever since it published a white paper on the issue back in 2005. WGAW president Patric Verrone and TV writers such as Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal testified before both Congress and the FCC last year on product integration and its implications for creative artists and the viewing public. And Verrone wrote to Martin on June 24th:
“Should the FCC initiate a rule-making process concerning the growing use of product integration, as recent news reports have suggested, the WGAW hopes this process will address the concerns of consumers and content creators.
“The concept behind product integration is the embedding of commercial products within the storyline of a program, so as to subliminally advertise to viewers. The hope is that consumers, not expecting to find a commercial within their program, will fail to realize they are actually being advertised to. This practice exploits the emotional connection viewers have with shows and their characters in order to sell a product. The WGAW believes that broadcasters must adequately disclose the products that are integrated into a story in order to insure that viewers know they are watching a paid advertisement.
“Additionally, we hope that the NPRM can serve to protect writers and other creative talent from the adverse effects of product integration. When writers are told we must incorporate a commercial product into the story lines we have written, we cease to be creators. Instead, we run the risk of alienating an audience that expects compelling television, not commercials. In support of these goals, the WGAW supports the following rules regarding the rampant use of product integration.
“The WGAW believes the proper policy would be to ban product integration from the already extremely commercialized public airwaves. We believe in principle that there should be a clear and distinct separation between advertising and entertainment content. As Andy Burnham, the United Kingdom’s Secretary of Culture so eloquently stated, “Here and now I do want to signal that there are some lines that we should not cross, one of which is that you can buy the space between programmes on commercial channels, but not the space within them.
“However, since that line has already been crossed in the United States, we believe the best way to alert consumers that products have been integrated into programming is for the FCC to create rules requiring ‘real time’ disclosure at the time the product is mentioned, referenced, or exhibited. Since DVRs and other such devices allow viewers to skip or fast forward through opening and closing credits, requiring disclosure at some other moment in the programming will simply not offer adequate protection.
“The WGAW believes that ‘real time’ disclosure will be the most effective way to protect consumers from disguised commercials. The practice of placing text along the bottom of the screen, also known as a ‘crawl,’ is already used by many networks to announce news reports, sports scores, stock market updates, as well as to promote upcoming programming. Since crawls are used with relative frequency, and viewers are accustomed to this practice, such a crawl would be no more intrusive than the warnings required for pharmaceutical ads or the network identifiers or ‘bugs’ that are now a mainstay of our TV visual field.
“In order to insure maximum disclosure to viewers, the WGAW believes that a crawl should appear for a reasonable period of time, should move at a reasonable speed, should be clearly readable by the viewer with a reasonable degree of color contrast between the background and the text, and should not include logos or other product-related graphics. In addition, we would hope that any disclosure rules would require the name of the product and the parent company to be included in the crawl.”