Television Primetime Now A Market For Issues

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For years companies have sought to place their products on primetime television programs and in feature films. A few seconds of exposure on a popular drama or comedy series can be worth as much as $500,000 based on the cost of a 30-second commercial..

When actors drink Fiji Water on Friends, Will & Grace, Touched By An Angel and other programs, it was through product placement. There are two competitive publishers of legal books whose products have appeared on Ally McBeal, JAG, Philly, The Practice and other series. Ford and Coca-Cola are even producing their own programs to insure exposure for their products.

Ford Motor Company products were placed by Showcase International in 26 of the top 27 shows that use cars, according to Richard Briggs, Showcase senior managing director. The firm also placinged T-Birds and Mustangs in Spiderman. “We believe that thoughtful and seamless placement is appropriate for our client, otherwise the entertainment content begins to look like a commercial which can lead to viewer dissatisfaction and a potential turnoff to the brand,” says Briggs.

The degree of exposure varies by network. Each has its own regulations. The FCC’s standards and practices do not allow cash transactions for product placement because it would be considered paid advertising. Companies provide the products free in exchange for a few seconds of exposure.

Now issues-oriented organizations involved with the environment, abortion, healthcare, foreign or domestic policy and other sensitive and controversial issues should be looking to Hollywood. Primetime drama and comedy programs have become a new editorial forum where the producers, directors, writers and actors advocate their own issues.

Screenwriters are taking current events and issues and quickly dramatizing them into West Wing, JAG, Law & Order, The Practice, The Agency, First Monday and other popular television series. Jay Leno even took a Katie Couric interview on The Today Show and edited it so he became the interviewer. The result was an altogether new version of what the person being interviewed actually said or meant.

Because of this, it is becoming more difficult for the viewer to separate fact from fiction and remember whether the information came from the evening news, a TV magazine show or primetime entertainment.

In fact, more people may be watching primetime series than the evening news. According to Hank Rieger, former president of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, viewers of the evening news and magazine shows range from an average of 11 to 16 million depending on the network. However, more than 17 million people average watching West Wing and Law & Order.

A West Wing storyline on global warming mirrored the Clinton-Gore environmental policy. Another episode touted the Clean Air Act and it impacts asthma, breathing and lung diseases. Yet, The Practice attacked EPA in one program for not protecting children from arsenic leeching from wood playground equipment.

One of the first episodes of First Monday about the Supreme Court dealt with the pro-life, pro-choice, Roe v. Wade controversy. Future programs will feature more sensitive subjects..

If questioned, would a viewer be more apt to recall the controversy regarding U.S. military policy on female dress requirements in Saudi Arabia according to how it was reported on the news or magazine programs that featured Lt. Col. Martha McSally, or how the issue was dramatized on JAG?

Congressman Gary Condit’s wife, Carolyn, demanded an apology from the producers of Law & Order following an episode about a politician and a missing aide. The producers said the show was fictional. She lost, as did her husband in his re-election bid.

The military armed forces have long recognized the influence of television and staffed offices in the Los Angeles area to work with Hollywood to get the best possible exposure for their branch.

Knowing the power of television, following 9/11 White House Advisor Mark McKinnon met with industry leaders and asked them to reflect in storylines President Bush’s message of reassuring children and promoting tolerance.

Feature films such as A Civil Action and Erin Brockovitch have a life long after running in theaters B in primetime, pay-for-view and a multitude of cable television channels. Overload, the only Arthur Hailey novel not made into a feature film or mini-series, condemned a fictional public utility. Using a controlled media production company as a front, a public utility acquired the rights to Overload and promptly shelved it.

Just as important as getting a product hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of exposure, organizations with critical issues must build Hollywood relationships for their special interests. What’s next? Stories on religious misdeeds, airport security, oil drilling in Alaska, or price fixing at Sotheby’s? Or stories similar to Enron and Arthur Andersen?

Rene A. Henry, Fellow PRSA, is an author, consultant and member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. He has judged the Primetime Emmy Awards a dozen times.

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