Powell sounds conflicted as he speaks about these ads, the “interstitials.” (The industry also calls them “podbusters.”) Using the show’s characters in ads was ingenious, he says. But Powell, who has done successful commercials, knows they generally pay a noncompete clause, to insure actors can’t pitch a competing product. The cast members discussed the lack of compensation, but nobody seems to have complained. He circles back: “I do want to make it clear I think that we need product integration. If Verizon didn’t pay us to say ‘Give us the money,’ we wouldn’t be on the air. They’ve created an environment where they can show any product and people find it funny. I’m glad it’s my show that figured this out!”
Comic Judah Friedlander also plays a writer on 30 Rock. He, too, wasn’t sure what the deal was with those interstitials. Sometimes, he says, “there’s integration going on and I don’t even know it. Maybe if you’re a huge star, you can say no. Where I’m at, you pretty much do it if they tell you.”
A few days later, I find myself gazing at an American Express magazine ad featuring Tina Fey. The image is hypnotically appealing. In it, Fey sits on the floor of her messy office, with her adorable toddler, looking smart and intense. Like Apple, like Ben & Jerry’s, like 30 Rock, Tina Fey is herself a brand that women 18 to 49 might find seductive. She’s the working mom (who plays an iconic single woman), the girl nerd with power, capable of getting chick-centric comedies greenlighted in this Apatow age. She zapped Aaron Sorkin; she zinged Sarah Palin. Bitch is the new black.
If Tina Fey thinks it’s okay, who am I to disagree?
Then something interesting crops up on the Internet, a different type of experiment. It’s by Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I’d last seen Whedon on the set of Firefly, a Fox space-Western about a group of rebels fleeing a corporation that governs their universe. The series premiered in 2002, in retrospect the year everything changed. Joe Millionaire became a monster hit. DVRs were new; DVDs were a big deal; online TV hadn’t happened, but it was on the horizon. Aired out of order, Firefly was canceled after eleven episodes despite a fanatical online following. Yet it was a surprise hit on DVD, enabling Whedon to make a movie. Serenity won raves but flopped at the box office. So it goes.
Whedon is about to launch Dollhouse, a new series on Fox. But in the interim, he’s whipped up a pet project, a labor of love that is also a stab at a new kind of TV economics—and a response to the paralysis he witnessed during the writers’ strike. It’s a musical called Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, 42 minutes long, filmed in six days, starring Neil Patrick Harris as Billy, an anarchist nerd who dreams of being a supervillain. Quirky and hilarious, it streamed free for a week online (crashing the server the first night.) Then it went onto iTunes, debuting at No. 1. A DVD launches this fall. A tech blogger ran the numbers and concluded Whedon might make real money. This could “signal the beginning of the end of television as the medium of the least common denominator and the beginning of the profitable niche market,” the blogger wrote, applauding a “freemium model” enabling cult creators to get funding directly from their audience.
I ask Whedon about 30 Rock. Like Fontana, he’s a fan. He thought the Verizon joke was fantastic. But he adds a caveat: You can only do that joke once. “You can’t do it again and be cute, because then it’s a different type of shilling. Eventually you realize the reason they’re making a joke is because there’s something abhorrent going on.”
I tell him about the SoyJoy deal. He’s troubled; he hadn’t realized that was an integration. (He also hadn’t realized it was a real brand.) But it’s the American Express podbusters that really set him off. “My wife and I get very angry. We invest in the reality of the show! And this is one of the ways they’re picking apart the idea of the narrative, keeping you from knowing if it’s a show or not.”
It’s not just one series or one network, he points out. Everybody does it, and the strike added almost nothing to his colleagues’ ability, or willingness, to push back, not merely against integration but against the way storytelling itself has been corroded—by required “Webisodes,” the insistence that writers blog every impulse, even the erosion of the end credits. “They want to take the story apart so they can stuff it with as much revenue as they can. And ultimately what you get is a zombie, a stuffed thing—a non-show.”