Dick Blasucci was worrying about the Toyota Yaris . Those days, the car was on his mind all the time.
Blasucci had written television comedy since 1980, but he’d never seen anything like the mess at Mad TV. With lousy ratings, the Fox sketch show was the RC Cola to Saturday Night Live’s Pepsi : no buzz, little profit. So the showrunner wasn’t surprised when his bosses patched him in to a conference call with Madison Road, a broker for product integration—the latest fad in TV economics, the killer app meant to save TV from TiVo .
The deal they’d cut guaranteed four sketches for Toyota. Classic product placement, and if it kept them on the air, where was the harm? But then Blasucci started to get notes. Showing the Yaris wasn’t sufficient, said the rep from Madison Road. The characters must praise the car’s features: its roomy interior, its sleek lines. The writers pitched a spoof of a commercial, with a young couple making out in the Yaris, panting about its fuel efficiency. No, said Madison Road. Cut the parody bit. The skit should just feature the couple panting over the Yaris. They aired it—and Blasucci began to recognize he was part of “an experiment,” a test of how far the sponsor could go.
Later that season, in 2006, Madison Road deputized Blasucci to create a sketch touting the NASCAR HotPass, a deal on DirecTV. To Blasucci’s dismay, his job had become a crazy-making philosophical riddle. Was it possible to create truly funny, subversive comedy that would also sell Toyotas?
Still, the Mad TV writers kept trying. You couldn’t work in TV and be naïve. Viewers were DVRing past commercials and buying ad-free DVDs. Besides, Mad TV was just a goofy sketch show; nobody wanted to be the prima donna, throwing a big tantrum about integrity. “There was never any threat from the company saying, ‘You’re not coming back,’ but you sense it. Just naturally, you don’t want to be the guy to say, ‘No, I won’t do it!’ ”
Junior Mints. Lucky Strike. Coca-Cola.
These are strange days for television. The Sopranos ended only last year; during the mourning period, one could believe that this was not the end for David Chase’s masterpiece but the beginning of a golden age. After years of being sniffed at as “chewing gum for the eyes,” TV had created a truly ambitious, universally admired series—Dickensian! Now visionary auteurs could make the kind of art that no one thought TV could handle in the first place. Mad Men, The Wire, 30 Rock …
Audi. Home Depot. SoyJoy.
And yet, even as this era was dawning, something else had been going on, and it had of course to do with money, and the fact that there was no longer any logical way of making any. Long before Wall Street took a dive, the economic structure that had for so long supported television—SHOW, ad, SHOW, ad, SHOW, credits, AD, AD!—was dissolving in the heat of the new technologies. It was no wonder the products wanted in—into the scripts, into the hands of the characters, into the story.
T-Mobile. Staples. Chanel.
Meanwhile, reality television had begun its inexorable rise. The genre had, from the start, been built on integrated sponsorship. Objecting to Project Runway’s TRESemmé hair salon would be silly, like arguing that Rice-a-Roni corrupts The Price Is Right. But as these shows filled the schedule, they took the slots once reserved for scripted series. Each season (and the seasons were dissolving, too, along with the notion of a time slot), it became harder to justify a series with a pricey cast and a team of actual writers.
Enter product integration, branded entertainment, and the new age of television economics. It’s happened so gradually you may not have noticed—or, perhaps, haven’t cared. American consumers take pride in their media savvy; they are too hip to be fooled, too jaded to be appalled. If two decades ago music fans raged when Nike co-opted the Beatles’ “Revolution,” these days the most “independent” musicians vie to be on Gossip Girl. James Bond drives a BMW, Carrie Bradshaw drinks Skyy vodka. When the U.K. culture secretary made a statement this summer warning that if product placement came to the BBC, it would “ ‘contaminate’ programmes,” his outrage struck many American observers as frankly bizarre—so outdated, so naïve, so very British.
Nonetheless, before it got distracted by last fall’s strike, the Writers Guild of America had begun to lobby against the phenomenon. In May 2007, Phil Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, testified before the House. He showed a clip from 7th Heaven, a three-episode arc in which characters gushed repeatedly over the pleasures of Oreos. The clip ended when a young man proposed to his girlfriend by handing her an Oreo. She twisted the top off, saw the cream-gunked ring within, and beamed: “I will!”