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Wordplay vs. adplay

November 16, 2005

IT IS THE BURDEN OF ARTISTS to compromise their vision for the sake of commerce. Titian had to expend his genius on portraits that potentates could hang over their mantles. William Blake cursed his patrons and vowed to live only for art rather than profit, but he still picked up the occasional engraving job to pay the rent.

Today, consider the plight of the "story producer" -- that is to say, someone who writes the scripts for reality TV shows. One story producer on the now-defunct TBS reality show "Outback Jack" had to stand by helplessly while a producer interrupted a scene that involved the poignant struggle of eight young women at a hot spring trying to keep all their body parts within the confines of their teeny bikinis. The producer demanded that they shave themselves on camera using a gel supplied by a sponsor.

This was one of the examples of intrusive product placement cited by the Writers Guild of America in a report on the dastardly practice released Monday. The WGA and the Screen Actors Guild contend that the insertion of advertising within TV shows detracts from the art of storytelling and shackles artists' creativity, and they are demanding a code of conduct and a share of the profits.

The fact that the set of "What I Like About You" is stocked with Clairol Herbal Essences shampoo hardly seems worth getting in a lather about. And what's more exploitative -- humiliating overweight people on camera, as producers of NBC's "The Biggest Loser" do every week, or printing the Jell-O logo on the locked refrigerators they're forced to break into? Does anyone outside Hollywood care that all the cars on "Smallville" are Fords, or that Susan Lucci has to pitch Wal-Mart perfume on "All My Children"?

Not all TV writers produce schlock, and it must be frustrating for those with higher standards to see their potential Emmy winners turned into hourlong commercials. But product placement is here to stay, whether they like it or not. With advertisers spreading their money across cable and the Internet, and viewers using devices like TiVo to zap out commercials, producers increasingly need to insert ad messages in their shows to turn a profit.

The objections may well be about more than artistic values. Both guilds recently elected more combative leadership slates, and both subsequently fired their top negotiators, who were seen as being too accommodating. Studios are responding by making strike contingency plans, even though their contracts with the unions don't expire for years.

So maybe the writers and actors care deeply that the cast of "America's Top Model" had to hold a fashion show at a Kmart. Or maybe the whole fuss is a cheap bargaining chip that can be easily dropped in exchange for concessions later from the studios.

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