Like Howard Beale in the 1976 movie Network, writers recently stuck their collective heads out windows and yelled: ‘We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.’ At least their union did. At the end of November, the Writers Guild of America issued a white paper against the covert use of product integration and ad placement, particularly in reality programs. As WGA West president Patric Verrone points out, his members find the increasing use of guerilla integration a ‘particularly pervasive and obnoxious development,’ and see it as the thin end of a wedge that will push into other genres.
Notably, however, Verrone’s main consideration isn’t necessarily increased compensation. Though few scribes have been known to refuse a fat residual check or free drinks, what they really want is transparency. Writers are asking for a seat at the table when new business models are discussed, and they want to know before they sign on when clients are going to dictate content. In fact, the WGA’s paper proposed a four-part Code of Conduct that asks for full disclosure; limits on product integration in kids’ programming; a voice in the process determined through collective bargaining; and – perhaps most alarming for the factual entertainment world – an extension of all regulations into the cable world.
As of press time, Verrone says response from the six us networks has been stoically Lincoln Memorial-esque. However, the WGA does have an ace up its sleeve: the Federal Communications Commission. While the government watchdog is usually less concerned with creative (short of ‘wardrobe malfunctions’), it tends to be very interested when it comes to ad dollars. While Verrone says he hopes the WGA can get a seat at the table before the start of the new year, look for the Guild to go to the government otherwise. Pilots for the May pick-ups go into production in February and March, so the wga has a limited window of opportunity.
As to whether the viewing public will eventually pull a Howard Beale of their own, Verrone is cautiously optimistic: ‘I was watching an episode of The Simpsons the other night that took place in the future, where Marge says, ‘Fox turned into a hardcore porn channel so gradually I never even noticed.’ I don’t know if there is a breaking point. This happens in fits and starts, but it’s a slippery slope, and I think at some point people turn off – they find something else they’d rather watch. Whether it ends up being direct download, or programming that isn’t integrated with commercials [we'll have to see]… I don’t think the public is that thrilled about the idea of turning TV into round-the-clock infomercials.’
Until then, maybe it should be: ‘We’re mad as hell, and we’re going to Disneyland.’