LOS ANGELES (The Hollywood Reporter) — The Writers’ Guild of America and the Screen Actors’ Guild on Nov. 14 went public with their demands that networks and producers give writers and actors a creative say and financial compensation for writing brands into story lines or appearing with them onscreen.
At a news conference at the WGA West’s offices, the guild issued a policy paper outlining its opposition to what it terms “stealth advertising” in film and television and detailing accounts of writers who claim they were forced to weave advertisers into story lines. The document also calls for an industry code of conduct governing product integration and warns that the WGA will file an official complaint with the Federal Communications Commission seeking tougher regulation of branded entertainment if networks and producers do not open negotiations with Hollywood unions on giving writers, actors and directors a role in the lucrative deals.
“For generations the FCC has had disclosure requirements for paid product endorsements,” WGAW president Patric Verrone said. “We believe these requirements need to be enforced and strengthened, and we intend to pursue those channels with the FCC if we must. We believe the public has a right to know when … they’re being sold a bill of goods disguised as entertainment.
“In the white paper, we are asking to be in a dialogue with our employers on this subject to create a code of conduct, to disclose and limit the practice of product integration and to include writers, actors and directors in the decision-making process upfront,” he said.
All the major networks declined comment, but industry sources said most were unlikely to seriously entertain the WGA demands. Executives with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the negotiating body for the major studios, were unavailable for comment.
With its white paper describing reality TV as the most prominent platform for product integration, the WGA appears to be seeking leverage in its campaign to organize reality TV writers and story editors, most of whom work without guild coverage.
The white paper cites several examples of what it described as egregious integration, including the character played by Eva Longoria on ABC’s hit “Desperate Housewives” getting a job as a spokesmodel for the Buick LaCrosse, and story lines about Procter & Gamble’s Herbal Essences and Swiffer brands on WB Network’s “What I Like About You.” It quotes story producers on reality shows “American Dream Derby,” “Outback Jack” and “America’s Next Top Model” detailing situations in which they were pressured to integrate advertisers into their shows.
But industry sources said writers on “Housewives” actually were the ones to conceive the story line about Longoria’s character being hired as a car spokesmodel, which ABC followed up on by seeking an advertiser to fill the role in exchange for integration dollars.
Joe Davola, executive producer for “What I Like About You,” as well as WB shows “Smallville” and “One Tree Hill,” said he never forces his writers to do anything against their will and said they even accompany him to meetings with advertisers. He said all the integration revenue generated on his shows goes to production costs and marketing support to help promote the show.
Davola said that for “One Tree Hill,” he gave his writers a list of P&G brands they could integrate into scripts and they decided how to write them in.
“I have no problem with people getting compensated,” Davola said, noting that such a decision was up to the studio and that he didn’t make any money from the deals. “I have not forced one of my writers to put any of this stuff in the show. That’s not the relationship I have with the people I work with.”
Ben Silverman, one of the most prolific producers of reality shows with brand integration, called the WGA demands “ridiculous” and said the guilds needed to realize that advertisers are not putting additional money into integration deals but shifting money they used to spend on traditional 30-second spots.
“This is just how the shows are getting produced,” said Silverman, producer of such series as “The Biggest Loser,” “The Restaurant” and NBC’s scripted comedy “The Office.” Silverman said his reality series do not employ writers.
SAG reps said product integration was particularly significant for actors, who often have their own endorsement deals with advertisers and need to retain the right to refuse to participate in branded entertainment deals arranged by networks of producers.
“We have no hate for advertising, but we have to keep in mind that actors have to be compensated if we’re asked to pitch a product,” said Anne-Marie Johnson, SAG Hollywood division chair and first national VP.