TV characters spruiking commercial products in scripted drama is becoming an emerging trend as producers turn to new funding sources, but there are cautious warnings not to let it overtake storytelling.
Recent Neighbours episodes in which Dr. Karl Kennedy (Alan Fletcher) and Susan (Jackie Woodburne) learned of the miracles of genealogy website Ancestry.com were highlighted by Media Watch.
While producers Fremantle and TEN defend the move as authentic to the story of Karl looking for his long-lost sister (Magda Szubanski), some industry voices are more guarded.
The Australian Writers’ Guild TV declined to comment to TV Tonight on whether writers were supportive of the move, or whether it required changes to their award. The Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance said actors’ names and images used for commercial goods were covered by the Actor’s Television Programs Agreement (ATPA) and required written consent -an agreement which has been in place for advertising rather than episodic performance.
Respected screenwriter Bevan Lee (A Place to Call Home, Packed to the Rafters, Winners & Losers), whose own dramas have seen digital products inserted with Mirri-ad technology, believes product placement in drama is less obtrusive when it is visual, but warns of a “thin edge of the wedge.”
“I see no problem with it, if said exercise does not dominate the frame but is inserted so as to have a relatively subliminal effect. Certainly, I as a creator would resist any attempts to see product endorsement imposed on dialogue, unless it was utterly true and organic to the scene and the storyline. I am relatively comfortable with the thin end of the wedge as we’ve seen it inserted until now, but I think a watch eye is needed on the wedge being pushed too far. That is how logs are split and trees felled,” he said.
A joint statement from Fremantle and TEN said, “Any commercial integration opportunities within a television drama are always looked at closely by the whole team. Brand integration is only considered for Neighbours when there is an organic, editorially relevant fit for a brand within a storyline. The creative integrity of the program and the authenticity of the storyline are always our top priority.
“Partnering with Ancestry.com for mentions in three episodes was a natural fit for the narrative our story team had plotted about the discovery of a new character. Our audience trust us to deliver a quality, relatable drama and we do all we can to maintain this trust.
“At all times Fremantle and Network TEN comply with the regulations of the Australian television industry.”
The Ancestry.com storyline was not the first “integration” for Neighbours, with a previous deal through Air BnB.
Indeed in the US Black-ish has had a storyline with Procter& Gamble. UK drama Cilla also carried a product endorsement, but British shows must carry a “P” logo to indicate the presence of paid placements.
Bevan Lee remains pragmatic about the funding opportunities and challenges faced by the genre.
“Drama is an expensive, and increasingly so, medium, so certain product placement deals could see the budgets increased,” he said.
“If the funds are properly used, that might improve the quality of certain shows. On that basis, I will remain a glass half full guy on the matter, but would become a vocal opponent of the practice if I saw the glass half empty or less.”