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In-Show Product Pushing Chided

Writers Guild and SAG say the growing practice of placing goods in TV scripts hurts stories.

November 14, 2005|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

On the UPN hit "America's Next Top Model" this year, glamorous beauties walked a runway at a Kmart. On NBC's "The Biggest Loser," contestants vying to lose the most weight struggled to break open padlocked Jell-O-branded refrigerators.

And on the WB's "Gilmore Girls," Lorelai toasted her engagement by drinking a malt beverage and saying: "Let's drink Zima and have sex every night."

For TV producers and studios, Hollywood's growing reliance on such "product integration" helps pay the bills. For the unions representing writers and actors, however, it detracts from the art of storytelling.

Today, the Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America are expected to propose that Hollywood needs a "code of conduct" to set guidelines for the insertion of products into movies and TV shows. If the networks and studios fail to draft such a code themselves, the guilds say, it may be time for the Federal Communications Commission to clamp down on the practice.

"In their race to the bottom line to create the so-called new business model, network and advertising executives are ignoring the public's interest and demanding that creative artists participate in stealth advertising disguised as a story," said Patric Verrone, president of the Writers Guild's western division, which details its concerns in a report.

The report, which is expected to be released today, argues that creativity and compelling story lines are suffering as producers constantly squeeze in references to products. Guild members say they are in effect being drafted against their will to pitch products. At the same time, they complain, networks and studios have built this lucrative $1-billion-a-year business without paying actors and writers their fair share.

SAG President Alan Rosenberg said the practice "too often takes place without any compensation to the very performers that are expected to push those products."

As the Writers Guild report puts it: "It used to be that a writer would be asked to weave a love interest into a story. Now, that writer is being asked to weave in potato chips, or soft drinks or building-supply stores."

Joe Davola, executive producer for such WB shows as "Smallville," "One Tree Hill" and "What I Like About You," defended the practice as a financial necessity in today's tight-fisted TV business. In an interview, he noted that budgets were especially tight at smaller networks, such as the WB, which still want first-rate production levels.

"I don't pimp Pringles," Davola said. "My arm is not being twisted to do this."

But the writers and actors guilds contend that viewers are unwittingly being sold products, potentially violating government rules if not properly disclosed.

The guilds say there should be strict limits on the use of product integration during children's programming. They are also demanding disclosure of any deals at the start of each program, rather than a mention during the closing credits. Contracts with the studios should also stipulate that writers, actors and directors have input in how products are integrated.

In addition, the guilds contend that any regulation of embedded advertising should be extended to cover cable TV, where the report says "some of the most egregious abuse is found."

The Writers Guild report details several examples of dialogue about product that was shoehorned into programs. A story producer on the short-lived TBS reality show "Outback Jack" said they were on location at a natural hot springs filming "eight girls in bikinis, and the producer takes out a basket of Skintimate shave gel ... and tells them to start shaving."

A producer on UPN's "America's Next Top Model," said the contestants were unhappy about their fashion show being staged at discount retailer Kmart, a unit of Sears Holding Corp. The report said disparaging comments by the aspiring models were deleted, and that the women were asked to dub in complimentary lines such as "I shop here all the time."

Ken Mok, executive producer for "Top Model," disputed that account.

"That's completely wrong and erroneous," Mok said in an interview. "We never put words in the girls' mouths. We don't tell the contestants what to say about any of the products."

Scott Miller, a story producer for "American Dream Derby," a horse racing-themed show which ran on the Game Show Network, said in the report that the show's producers seemed more concerned about showcasing Diet Dr. Pepper than the horses. Miller said that at times he stood behind the camera, slipping cans of soda to the cast.

"The contestants would be crying or conspiring or strategizing or screaming at one another, and we would have to stop to get sound bites about Diet Dr. Pepper," Miller said in an interview.

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