The Writers Guild of America says the bigger issue is what the content looks like at the end of that product placement process. That's why they want to be part of the conversation with networks and studios when they put products in shows. This is understandable. If writers don't make good shows, they may not get to make more good shows in the future.
But it's easier for established writers/producers like John Wells ("ER," "The West Wing") and Marc Cherry ("Desperate Housewives") to make that decision. Truth is, unaccomplished writers will do whatever it takes to get a show on the air. Mark Burnett did what he needed to do to get a summer show, "Survivor," on the air initially. That meant bringing in advertisers--because CBS wasn't going to pay him a license fee.
If a network or studio hints that a certain car manufacturer, cell phone company, or cracker company, might be of help to a borderline show (read that as big media budgets for the network advertising department), then inorganic product integrations will see the light of day.
One of most popular scripted shows that received the most product placement was CBS' "King of Queens"--now off the air for the fall. Seems that the Kevin James character was always snacking on cookies or candies, or perhaps wearing an NFL or MLB team shirt. Since he was a UPS-type of deliveryman, all this seemed in character.
This past week, WGA passed out a DVD during its New York press conference to show off the most egregious product placements on TV. One came from ABC reality show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" and another from the WB scripted drama "7th Heaven." In one clip, an actor proposed marriage by inserting an engagement ring into the cream filling of an Oreo cookie.
"If I were the creator, I would have had to take a shower after watching some of that stuff," said Marc Cherry.
But Cherry has a highly rated TV show on his hands--which could put him in a slightly different position than other writers. That's what the WGA is for, I guess--to protect all scribes.
Seventy-five percent of product placement deals on TV right now are done with no money exchanging hands, said Norm Marshall, who runs a longtime West Coast product placement agency.
Writers want to get into the dialogue about product placement before all this changes dramatically. But how many will really get a place at the table to speak?