Tuesday, May 19, 2009

When TV Shows Become The Sponsor's Bitch

"My Name is Earl" Greg Garcia creator had choice words for NBC regarding the recent cancellation of his show:

"It’s hard to be too upset about being thrown off the Titanic."

But NBC has been so good to other shows, showing "Chuck" mercy! All the "Chuck" producers need to do is strengthen the tie-in with sponsor Subway:

“Chuck” appealed to Subway for reasons that included its audience, which is mostly the type of younger consumer that buys a lot of subs at malls. The show takes place in a mall, and Chuck’s girlfriend, Sarah, is a
C.I.A. agent who works under cover at various stands in the food court.It is no great leap to believe she could be selling Subway sandwiches next season.

Synergy, baby!

But I don't think NBC is the "Titanic." Network TV as we know it is the Titanic.

So how does a show like "Dollhouse" get renewed, and "Earl" doesn't? Is it the Hulu connection? Is it the demographics? If "My Name Is Earl" made a deal with Taco Bell and had Earl actually worked at Taco Bell, would that have saved the show, made it more attractive to the advertisers?

Are we going back to a system where one or two main advertisers own the show, body and soul?

Are we going back to this:

and here we are, 2009:

the only difference is that the Subway spot in "Chuck" was an actual part of the story.

I believe for nervous network TV stations, this solution -- making their TV shows the outright "bitch" of certain sponsors -- will become more and more the norm; meanwhile over at Hulu, we have the radical concept of watching free TV with "limited commercial interruptions."

We've come so far!


  1. From what I've heard, and for what it was, Earl was incredibly expensive to make. And given that it's been on several seasons now, and still has no improvements in its ratings, it would make perfect sense for a 4th-place, recession-affected network to not renew it.

    And the product placement can be annoying, but rarely as annoying as actual commercials, and the built in dramatic breaks, often are.

    Plus, some shows handle the issue particularly well. 30 Rock usually just mocks the GE and other corporate products it brings up. The Office has Dunder Mifflin competing with Staples, which makes sense. And while you can't watch a scene of Friday Night Lights without seeing Gatorade, Underarmor, or Applebys, those products fit into the life and story being told, and in a way evoke a stronger sense of realism.

    And I don't think it's helpful to talk about such shows as being the "bitches" of ad companies. As outdated as it may appear now, TV is paid for by those commercials. It doesn't make a showrunner weak and pathetic to do what their network asks in order to keep funding a show.

  2. But Ryan, the further these TV shows go in completely integrating their sponsor into the storyline, the more these shows become advertisement/story hybrids. When Stephen Colbert talks about his sponsors on his show, he does so in a tongue-in-cheek, winking way -- as if to say, "I gotta go push this product now cause we have a deal". But if Sarah from "Chuck" starts working at a Subway and Subway becomes a focal point of action in that TV show, that's taken the sponsor one step further and deeper within the narrative & mythology of the show. Then they should just call the show: "Subway Presents: Chuck." And if they want to at least be up-front about it and say that "Chuck" is now advertainment instead of entertainment, I think that's fine. But it's definitely crossed the line into advertainment.

  3. When then it should be the network's job to find appropriate products, and the showrunner's job to integrate them in non-intrusive, non-irritating way.

    The Subway/Chuck thing was so blatant to be distracting. But rarely do I care about the promotional consideration Volkswagon paid to have the Dharma Initiative drive around in all those pretty blue vans on Lost.

    And maybe HBO has ruined me, but I find commercial breaks to be more insulting and outrageous. I mean, that method not only interrupts your viewing to throw infuriating laundry detergent ads at you, but they also dictate how the show is written and filmed in order to compensate for the dramatic pause, as it were, that occurs with these breaks.

    So either way the show is influenced and dependent on their ads. But one way can be used creatively. The other way, while more standard, is actually, IMO, creatively worse.

    Though it would help to talk to some TV producers on this.

  4. Commercialization is becoming more transparent on these shows. 'Gary Unmarried' had a minute and a half spot between two characters discussing the new KFC grilled. It was painfully forced and not organic to the plot in any way besides having two single guys eat. I guess producers need ways to bring in sponsor revenue if their shows are on ‘the bubble’, like Chuck. This cooperative advertising will find it’s way in DVD sales as well. Movies have product placement too, but doesn’t often find it’s way into a storyline (Reese’s Pieces and ET).

    On the opposite side of product placement, I heard that DC is paid a licensing fee for its characters’ usage on Big Bang Theory.

  5. Everyone talks about re-examining the network TV model, but I never hear anyone talking about re-examining the advertising model. All of this integration of sponsors into actual show content is due to the DVR handily keeping commercials away from my eyeballs. With integration, you have to watch the ad if you're watching the show... except the ad often makes the show worse, making me not want to watch it.

    More crucially: does anyone honestly believe-- is it someone's actual, genuine contention-- that I will spend a single additional dime at Subway because they were talking about it on Chuck? Does my mind work differently than most people's, or is that insane if you stop to think about it for three seconds?

  6. Honestly, I don't mind product integration as long as it does fit into the story without coming across as a completely removable module that only has value to the sponsor.

    I am not sure if you are old enough to remember when movies assiduously avoided using brand names to the point it was silly sometimes. I cannot remember for sure, but I believe it was Repo Man where they had simple labels on everything as a sort of joke/comment/we're not going to even attempt to create fake brands.

    I would rather see a character simply drink a coke than some coke-like label Cola.

    If the characters are talking about the product to the point of selling it, then that is an issue.

  7. That was like Subway porn.

  8. Also, I lied Earl. It was no Office or 30 Rock, but it was pretty good. Minus the third season jail/coma storyline, or course. That blew. The timing sucks, because this season was a return to form.

  9. I noticed the awkward integration most from watching Smallville. Black Canary, I think talking about hwo she can't see without her (whatever company) contact lenses was really super lame.

    Lois' car and any other time they actually talked about things.

    Part of the actual story is pretty new though. Yikes.

  10. I realize this is an aside to your actual point about distribution models and how to subsidize them — but let's not forget that "Earl," as much as I've loved the show at various points in its broadcast history, had a severe case of losing the thread. For a show built so squarely around a premise that offered near-infinite flexibility, it feels compelled to wander off-message all the time. It's a frustrating show to watch, and I can easily imagine it as a high-maintenance operation for NBC. I'm just speculating, but my initial reaction is that "Earl" could do better on a network with tighter reigns and more shepherding. If it does get picked up elsewhere, it could be good for both NBC and the show.

  11. If i had to make a guess, I'd say 'Earl' died while 'Dollhouse' lives to see another season (really? they have? wow...) because Earl has already hit the magic syndication number and Dollhouse hasn't.

  12. I think Ryan nailed it in his first post. Any good show can handle product placement, as 30 Rock so adeptly does. If the Chuck product placement is clunky and lame, blame the writers. As far as My Name Is Earl is concerned, it's been mentioned in the past that NBC didn't support it much in the last couple seasons, probably on account of the fact of it's subject matter and low brow humor. It didn't exactly fit with their more highbrow programming on Thursday. Also, the show was never funny.

  13. I've seen the future and it was presented by Coca-cola.

    Services like Hulu, Comcast's on Demand and Netflix are going to place a greater priority on in show advertising. I mean who watches comericals anymore? No one. You tivo right past them! You think the networks and their advertisers don't know that? TV Shows cost a lot of money to make and nobody is doing this for their health, they're doing it to make money.

    It's either advertising that's going to pay for most of the shows we watch or everything is going to move to a subscription model like HBO and showtime.

    I mean how is a service like Hulu supposed to kill network TV? If they did what would you watch on Hulu?

  14. I would hardly call The Office or 30 Rock highbrow. Smart, yes and smarter than Earl. Frasier was highbrow. Not as smart as The oFFice, but much more highbrow. I will assume you know the difference between highbrow and intelligent.

    BTW, Earl was funny

  15. Anonymous11:57 PM

    I actually think the marketing in Chuck is brilliantly done. They work not only in a goddamn ELECTRONICS store, but LOS ANGELES, the center of everything. Chuck has done what only a few shows have (including the Sopranos and Arrested Development): made the marketing part of the show's world.

    But yeah, I see your point exactly and agree on the whole.

  16. Maybe it was the Scientology connection that sunk Earl?

  17. Anonymous9:08 AM

    Val, where were you last year when SciFi's "Eureka" was hawking Degree? Or before that, when the Global Dynamics computers all read "Cisco Systems"?

    This has been going on for a LONG time...

  18. Anonymous7:28 PM

    Oh God, Eureka is in a class all it's own. I literally had to hold on to support from dying of laughter when my TV's guide read one of the descriptions of Eureka. It read like a Degree commercial.

    That and Eureka possibly fell under her radar because it is simply unremarkable.