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 compensation."
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 agreement."