Writers Want Say in Product Integration Deals

May 17, 2006  •  Post A Comment

With upfront season in full swing in New York, the Writers Guild of America East on Wednesday called for writers, producers and showrunners to have a say in the growing practice of product integration and potentially take a piece of the action.

Writers were represented at a press conference by the makers of hit shows. The representatives included Neal Baer, executive producer of “Law & Order SVU”; Marc Cherry, executive producer of “Desperate Housewives”; and John Wells, executive producer of “ER.” The reps said they wanted to be able to protect their work so that product integration demands did not interrupt the storytelling and drive away the audiences that advertisers seek and which ultimately pay for the programs.

WGA West, which has already been pressing the issue, which is distinct from simple product placement. “It’s one thing to have a bottle of Poland Spring on a table,” said Patric Verrone, president of WGA West. “It’s another to have writers write and actors speak about its refreshing goodness and having a whacky neighbor, who this week is in the water business, stock the product.”

Mr. Verrone said deals integrating product into shows were being struck during the upfront as advertisers and networks fret over viewers using DVRs. Those deals are being made without the participation of writers and actors. “We believe this is not acceptable,” he said, and said he was seeking a dialog on the issues with the networks and studios.

Mr. Cherry said that because he is an executive producer of a hit show, the executives running ABC and Touchstone Television have been very respectful of him, but he’s concerned about people writing for shows just starting out or on the bubble.

In its first season “Desperate Housewives” did a product integration in which Eva Longoria served as spokesmodel for the Buick LaCrosse, Mr. Cherry said. “I didn’t feel guilty the next day. It set up a punch line.”

More recently, another automaker wanted a “Housewives” character to drive one of its cars. Mr. Cherry said the main characters already had cars that were identified with them. The auto company was offered some other characters, including Marcia Cross’ evil son, but the company didn’t feel it was appropriate and the deal got dropped.

Mr. Cherry said that writers’ rights should be protected and that there should be “consultation and compensation.”

Mr. Wells said one big problem with integration is that sponsors never want their products shown in a negative light, whether it be cars crashing or drugs having side effects when used improperly.

“It’s very difficult to do a dramatic story on a product when nothing goes wrong with the product,” Mr. Wells said.

“I don’t want to bite the hand that feeds us, but I wouldn’t want [‘L&O: SVU’ lead characters] Olivia Benson and Elliot Stabler to stop on the way to a crime scene to discuss the benefits of one kind of vitamin or one kind of deodorant,” Mr. Baer said. That would bring the story to “a screeching halt,” he said. Mr. Baer added that he has not been asked by NBC Universal to include product integration in “SVU,” but he said, “This needs to be dealt with now.”

The WGA does not currently represent reality show producers, but Dave Rupel, executive producer of Bravo’s “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” said advertiser demands to have “real” people talk about particular brands and to have particular products shown for specific lengths of time, hurts his shows.

“We can make anything entertaining,” he said, but when he has to hold a shot of a Nokia phone for three seconds, “The audience immediately knows what it is.”