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KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

Issue Six

Commercially Viable: the future of broadcast television

by Guest Author , August 19, 20114 Comments

In Issue Six of Kill Your Darlings, Laurie Steed described the strange fate of NBC‘s ‘Chuck’. Here, Laurie examines further television’s Faustian pact with advertising.

I have an agreement with television: it can sell me stuff as long as I can watch entertaining, innovative programming. To reiterate, I will endure sporadic spruiking as thanks for free access to a cornucopia of plots, characters and conflicts.

For me, advertisements are like Charlie Sheen: annoying and offensive, but ultimately an essential part of what makes free-to-air television viable.

With traditional ad sales declining, television is resorting to new types of brand integration. Product placement, which in layman’s terms is the placing of branded material in a context usually devoid of advertisements, has been the standard approach for decades. Put into practice, it looks like this:

 

 

A 2006 survey by the US-based Association of National Advertisers cited various reasons for choosing product placement over traditional advertising. These ranged from creating a ‘stronger emotional connection’, to the targeting of a specific group. In other words, it’s not enough to sell stuff during the ad breaks; they want the shows themselves to be compelling, immutable advertisements.

But where do we draw the line? Recent episodes of NBC’s Chuck saw major corporate sponsors inserted into narratives and even given storylines. A case in point was season four episode ‘Chuck vs. The Masquerade’, where Chuck’s sister Ellie and her husband Devon  visit mega retail outlet ‘Buy More’ to find something to help their baby sleep. Soon after, they find the perfect product, Cloud B’s ‘Sleep Sheep’. (You can view the scene here.)

After the episode screened in the US, Cloud B and fan site Chuck TV offered viewers a 50% discount on any ‘Sleep Sheep’ purchase in return for ‘liking’ the Sleep Sheep on Facebook. Soon after, Chuck TV again encouraged fans to purchase the product in support of Chuck.

Fans of the show were starting to get used to this. The series only reached a third season thanks to a sponsorship deal with Subway restaurants, which dictated ‘significant integration into the show’. Put simply, this meant plot lines about Subway sandwiches. Prior to the show’s renewal, fans were urged to visit Subway and ‘show their support’, which they did, buying footlongs, drinks and cookies in the hope they’d given Chuck another life.

This is not all that surprising for a show like Chuck; it’s in part a series about commercial interests, so an element of corporate crossover is inevitable given the show’s initial premise and indeed, many scenes are set in the Buy More. But what about an older program like The Cosby Show? Surely content produced without product placement is impervious from such commercial hijacking? Well, no, not according to companies like Mirriad.

Mirriad is a digital product placement facilitator. It inserts brands into previously recorded films and TV shows. Here, the agreement comes not from a contemporary merging of company and advertiser, but from a realignment of non-commercial content with commercial products. The end result is a visually stunning, product heavy montage. Or to put it another way, it’s Forrest Gump: now with extra ads.

 

 

Mirriad has already signed a deal with Channel Seven, with more networks likely to follow suit. What then, for the future of television? Can the viewer help define an engaging, culturally relevant medium? Well, I guess that depends. How much are you willing to pay for the privilege?

- Laurie Steed’s essay, ‘Revenge of the Nerd: Fetish, Fantasy and Chuck’ appears in Kill Your Darlings Issue Six.




4 thoughts on “Commercially Viable: the future of broadcast television

  1. A really great article. Like you, I’m troubled by the ways in which the profit-motive is insinuating itself into nearly every aspect of our lives. The retrospective branding of content is a new development and no doubt the offspring of those annoying advertisements that popup during mainstream programming (which often cover a third of the screen). Even though it is part of a long-running trend, it is still disturbing how marketing companies are doing their best to turn all entertainment into platforms for commodification or, at the very least, congenial adjuncts of advertising. I wonder though how the retrospective re-branding is decided since some choices could create new contexts and interpretations of content, even controversy. It is not a trivial thing, since the addition of an image into pre-existing content does more than merely re-shape the aesthetic identity of the television program in question. Consider, for example, the subtext about actors portraying Oscar-winning roles if the bench Forest Gump was sitting on contained a poster advertisement for ‘Tropic of Thunder’ or if the Crate & Bake box in ‘The Cosby Show’ was replaced with a copy of Pauline Hanson’s book ‘The Truth’. Extreme examples certainly but for every new advertisement inserted into pre-existing content, an idea is embedded that goes beyond the function of the thing itself. Advertisers, of course, bank on this but the context in which their advertisement is experienced may have some multiple social readings in potentially unforeseen ways. I wonder too how far retrospective advertising will respond to cultural preferences and local differences, say like how Apple has alternative advertisements for the iPad in different territories. Overall, it seems our lives are becoming more and more a part of what seems like a permanent marketing campaign.

  2. Not The WALK OFF!! NOOOOOOOO.
    Perhaps another title for this post might be ‘do not be distracted by all the dazzling ads’!

  3. Thanks for the commments, guys. Genevieve, you’ve articulated a really important point. My favourite moments in film are devoid of a commercial context; indeed, if an overt commercial angle is present, I’ll often distance myself from the emotional resonance of a film or TV show. This is advertising at its most devious, whereby a cultural experience, be it a song, historical moment or key scene in a film is hijacked and placed into a commercial context. The idea is ads becoming our cultural experiences, but viewers can inherently sense an overt sales pitch. Hence, they take a cultural experience, insert their product and hope for an intellectual (and emotional) link between the two.

    Jason, I agree, its fascinating to consider how much cultural preferences will be taken into account. One would think they’d feature local products, but I doubt the context will be so adjusted. This again, is part of the problem. When studios (or indeed advertising companies) are trying to “imagine” Australia, they have no relevant context, only sterotypes and dated mythology. What then, for a contemporary discourse on Australian identity, the recognition of local differences and cultural anomalies?

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