Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip has been the location of a lot of interesting discussion this television season--about the importance of "high-end" educational and financial viewers versus "the masses," about the importance given to prestige programs versus programs that draw major audiences, etc. The Aaron Sorkin show has been renewed while many shows have fallen, both by drawing more affluent viewers and by having a prestige factor, even as the latest episode was the lowest rated yet.
Being a major fan of The West Wing and always a follower of sketch comedy, I was interested in this show from its very beginning. And, while I'm disappointed that we don't see enough of the actual show per episode (what a great transmedia project releasing an actual episode of Studio 60 from time-to-time would be!), the show does have some intelligent and insightful (and funny) commentary about politics, religion, and Hollywood.
Particularly interesting to the research we do here at C3 is a recent discussion on the Nov. 27 episode about bolstering Studio 60--the fictional sketch comedy show, rather than the real thing--with product placement to make it more profitable and to help offset the potential of cutbacks. Considering how controversial these questions have been in the "real world" of the entertainment industry, it was intriguing to see them as a plot point on the show. The major points of contention has been from the writers, who feel that product plugs are placing new forms of revenue that carry with them new responsibilities for writers that they are not being properly compensated for.
Back in May, I wrote about the differences between product placement and product integration. Then, I wrote:
Some television programs allow for product integration, using the WGA distinction, more than others. Particularly, it seems that reality television shows or sporting events are not as badly hurt by the extensive use of sponsor names because it doesn't seem as absurd. Both are already controlled environments and in fact gain their narrative drive from that contrived situation, whether it be a game or a reality competition. However, in fictional dramatic or comedy series, product integration can easily destroy the viewer's suspension of disbelief in a way that detracts from viewer involvement and the perceived aristry of a show.
A sketch comedy environment is an interesting place to test out these questions, and I thought Studio 60 did it well, with the producer standing up for the show and against the infiltration of commercial elements until he found an organic way to make the products part of a new set for the show reflecting the real strip. Reminds me of an ad back in January for King Kong that proved how Times Square makes the best possible backdrop for product placement within a show. But Kong seemed to generate a lot of discussion about product placement and branding.
Joe Marchese wrote a piece for MediaPost and beat me to the punch back on Tuesday after the show ran, recommending that everyone in the industry or who deals with product placement watch the show. Marchese writes:
The great part about the setting for the debate was the layers: the real show's writers having characters, who are writers and producers themselves, discussing the issues of product placement and possible solutions. All the while, there were all sorts of "the right kind" of product placements during the show. But getting to the right kind of product placement isn't easy. I have heard many people compare the need for separation between content creation and monetization to the need for separation between church and state, so product placement is obviously not something to be taken lightly. But in a world where the 30 second spot's effectiveness continues to be threatened, it is certainly something that needs to be revisited.
This echoes some of the work of my colleague here in C3 Alec Austin and the research of the C3 team as a whole. There are clever ways to integrate products or place them organically--think Seinfeld and Sex in the City, for instance--but there are even more examples of clumsiness and blatant disregard for the quality of shows in some of these integration deals.
Marchese writes, "The potential is for the creative agency to truly offer support to the storytelling process by producing images that will help content creators tell their stories," and he points to the way the show itself is using product placement organically throughout the program as its characters argue about this very act of placing products in shows.
His column is definitely worth consulting, and the episode is one worth looking at for anyone interested in the debate of how content and product placement can coexist peacefully.