WGA seeks code of conduct for TV product placement

The Writers Guild of America is threatening to seek tougher federal regulation of TV product-placement deals if producers fail to open negotiations with the union on the issue of weaving commercial brands into storylines.

Backed by the Screen Actors Guild, the WGA plans to release a policy paper on Monday calling for the establishment of a code of conduct governing product integration on television and calling for talks on compensating writers for additional work involved in melding brands into content.

The white paper will officially be released at a news conference attended by WGA, West president Patric M. Verrone, interim executive director David Young, and SAG Hollywood division chair and first national vice president Anne-Marie Johnson.

The paper warns that the WGA is preparing a Federal Communications Commission complaint that documents violations of FCC regulations in the rapidly growing product integration arena and also calls for full-and-clear disclosure of branded entertainment deals at the beginning of each TV show.

"Along with being asked to create memorable stories and characters, our writers are being told to perform the function of ad copywriter, but to disguise this as storytelling ... The Guild does not want its members put in the unacceptable position of facilitating violations of FCC regulations. We therefore think this issue ultimately requires discussion both at the bargaining table and before the FCC in Washington."

With most actors also failing to receive compensation for product integration deals, SAG is joining ranks with the WGA. And Verrone said the WGA hopes other Hollywood unions, like the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) and the Directors Guild of America (DGA), will participate in the effort as well.

"The sharp increase of product placement in film and television too often takes place without any compensation to the very performers that are expected to push those products--and more often is done without any consultation with those performers and their representatives," SAG president Alan Rosenberg said. "It is time for producers to work with artists on this issue, and the best way to do that is to establish a cooperative code of conduct that will protect the artist, the viewing public, and advertiser-supported free television."

The WGA white paper calls for the establishment of a code that includes full-and-clear visual and aural disclosure of product integration deals at the beginning of each program; strict limits on the use of product integration in children's programming; a voice for storytellers, actors, and directors (arrived at through collective bargaining) about how a product or brand is to be integrated into the content; and the extension of all regulation of product integration to cable television.

"This code of conduct can be established through negotiations with our business partners. Failing that, we will seek additional FCC regulation," the white paper said.

Since the current WGA contract doesn't expire until November 2007, the guild appears to be focusing more on establishing an industry code of conduct than on seeking increased compensation for its writers, at least for the time being.

But the white paper stipulates that negotiations would also cover the appropriate compensation for the additional work involved in writing brands into content, "some of which may exceed the number of revisions provided for in the collective bargaining agreement, in addition to those provisions regarding merchandising rights and payment."

The white paper is particularly critical of reality TV, reflecting the WGA's ongoing campaign to organize reality TV writers and story editors, most of whom work without the benefit of union-guaranteed wages or working conditions.

Verrone said the best place for negotiations on compensation for writers who weave brands into scripts would be at the bargaining table--with reality writers.

"This seems to be the place where the companies are doing this kind of business most--with reality writers and storytellers--and so, if they're willing to negotiate with us about that, that would be a perfect place to discuss this issue," Verrone said.

So far, both networks and producers have rejected the WGA's efforts to bargain on behalf of reality writers.

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