At a recent Hollywood Radio & Television Society luncheon in April, several reality show producers discussed the disconnect between unscripted show producers and sales representatives, who pitch shows to advertisers without understanding what they’re pitching.
Mark Burnett, producer of exceptional product-placement heavy programming such as Survivor and The Apprentice, was quoted in Variety as calling it ‘the dumbest part of the business.’ Burnett wants creative to be a part of discussions with ad sales teams so they don’t hear it ‘third hand.’
America’s Next Top Model producer/host Tyra Banks admitted that with her series’ product integrations, ‘[a] lot of times, we fail.’ In TV Week‘s coverage of the luncheon, Banks is quoted as saying that while advertising executives want product placement, ‘they don’t know why they want it.’
As a viewer, I’d rather not have advertisers influence producers’ decisions about how to structure and shape their programming. I want producers to create compelling television with a great idea and great talent, not to find a way to sell a product.
I also don’t want producers of quality programs to have advertisers and product placement thrust upon them by a network or advertising department. Of course, I also want everyone to make money so that they can be rewarded for their efforts and I can watch the show (essentially) for free.
The idea of a division between the two entities is a holdover from the journalistic principle of the wall between editorial and advertising. But it’s clear that while the wall hasn’t disappeared (nor should it), in this case, perhaps it should be made of glass, and it might even need windows and doors.
Having ad sales reps, and thus advertisers, understand the shows they’re selling, as Burnett and Banks want, is an obvious first step. Advertisers, sales reps, and producers need to work together to respect the show’s integrity and concept.
A stack of Glad bag boxes sitting on shelves behind the Top Chef contestants isn’t exactly subtle. Neither is having camera operators zoom in on the products when the contestants are using them to store food overnight. But assuming the use of those products doesn’t impact the chefs’ cooking or ability to perform, the products remain on the periphery. Likewise, it makes sense to have the contestants on MTV’s Real World/Road Rules Challenge wear uniforms with a visible Under Armour logo, because it’s not affecting the show itself.
Nearly flawless integration works when editorial and advertising align. An excellent model from the scripted world is NBC’s 30 Rock, which integrates products but then has its characters make ironic, self-deprecating references to them, turning the sponsorship into knowing humor and acknowledging the audience’s intelligence.
The problem comes with non-fiction when products are shoved awkwardly into spaces where they don’t fit or belong. Far too many shows egregiously force contestants to say the name of a sponsor’s product, half-heartedly endorsing it during interviews. Is an endorsement compelling if it sounds forced and fake?
That compromises the integrity of the show. All unscripted television should be fundamentally about filming genuine, human responses within artificial situations and contexts. In an ideal world, products and advertisements should fit seamlessly, but at the very least, they shouldn’t interrupt.