In an old episode of the NBC sitcom “30 Rock,” Jack Donaghy, an ambitious TV exec, informs the writers of the fictional show-within-a-show that they will be forced to incorporate products from the NBC-Universal’s portable microwave division into their sketches. Liz Lemon, the head writer, refuses to stoop so low as to allow her show to become a vehicle for product placement. Then, in a delightfully meta-flourish, she waxes lyrical about how wonderful her Snapple is to the mutual agreement of everyone in the room. At the time it seemed like a perceptive piece of satire. But, in hindsight, it was an eerily prescient vision of the intrusive nature of television advertising.
As I have previously mentioned, on network television, ads run 19 minutes in every hour of programming. But the problem doesn’t end there. The absurdity of product placement agreements in the U.S. has spawned the horrific development of programming that seamlessly transitions from program to an ad break — the only difference being how the advertising is delivered.
Take “American Idol,” whose judges sit framed by perfectly-sized and placed super-size cokes. I can’t recall the last time I saw Randy Jackson sip his ever-inviting beverage, but if ever he did, it was always returned to the desk with its label facing to camera. Then, the ads come. The same companies who place products on the show often take out large chunks of ad-time, as if they really needed to ram their message home. The ad breaks are often bracketed by product tie-ins like the recent ad collaboration Donald Trump’s “The Apprentice” did recently with Walgreens. This is where the world of the advertiser, producer and viewer collide.
For TV networks, the Olympics is, well, the Olympics of advertising. For two weeks, viewers are glued to their televisions at all hours for a program that requires little producing, little acting (in spite of the incursion of soccer in this year’s lineup) and no writing. Sure, the rights cost NBC a small fortune ($1.2 billion, to be precise), but the undivided attention of the half the nation is worth a lot to the fourth-ranked network.
As several commentators have noted, NBC’s Olympics coverage has morphed into one of the most commercialized products of them all. The network has turned the Olympics into a hybrid reality TV program of sorts. During its broadcast of the opening ceremony, NBC cut a segment that reflected upon the deaths of the 7/7 London bombings and replaced it with an interview between Ryan Seacrest and Michael Phelps.
NBC’s broadcast was so delayed (by seven hours on the West Coast) that the network could easily have run both the interview and the memorial. But this wasn’t about shortening the show’s running time; it was about crafting a reality TV-style sporting narrative from the Olympics’ purely athletic drama. We see this from the endless drivel on the “Today Show” to the scary “P&G” commercials that use the lives of athletes to craft an heroic narrative about the athletes’ relationship to their parents. They bear an eerie resemblance to the edited introductions that introduce us to the competitors of a reality television show.
The irony of the Olympics being in London is that Britain is comparatively new to the game of product placement. Television in Britain, under the strict supervision of the Government regulator Ofcom only green-lit product placement on British-made television last year. While the BBC is, at least for the moment, steering clear of product placement, its main network competitors have signed on. Though, only a few programs actually feature product placement and they have yet to be quite as insidious as the examples found in this country. Don’t expect to see Branson from “Downton Abbey” rolling up the drive in a conspicuously labelled Model-T any time soon.
Several commentators believe product placement is a harmless method of raising some extra cash for productions that have been hit hard by the recession and internet piracy. The problem comes when these deals end up shaping the product they are placed in, whether it be the Olympics or the next James Bond film in which Daniel Craig will drop his signature dry martini for a Heineken. Until then, we’ll have to be reminded that the Olympics is not just a sporting event, but the flowing of the P&G-sanctioned relationship between our athletes and their parents. That these athletes drink Coke and eat McDonalds to get themselves into peak performance mode and that somehow, all of the best “moments” in the Olympics have something to do with Chevrolet. I never thought I’d say this, but sometimes I yearn to just watch the sports game! With a Bud Lite, of course.