December 6, 2006
Studio 60 and Product Placement

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.



The great irony of the product placement storyline is how many product placements there seem to be in the real Studio 60 show.

In almost every episode, Matt Albee or another writer is drinking Red Bull, Starbucks, or another branded caffeine source. Once you start to look for the placements, they are everywhere.

Do they fit with the characters, setting, and story? Sure. Are they necessary to the plot? You might argue that hard-working writers need stimulants to keep going late in the night. Do the brand logos pop on the screen? Yep.

On December 8, 2006 at 8:26 AM, Sam Ford said:

Good point, Cynthia. Joe wrote about this some and the organic ways in which product placement can be used. It's not that viewers aren't aware it is happening, but it does seem somewhat natural for them to be drinking coffee or an energy drink, doesn't it? Do you get the sense that this will offend some viewers or rather that it adds to the realism of the show to have them drink what people probably would drink in that situation?


The placements seem reasonable and realistic. But what struck me was how heated the debate on the show was.

Danny Tripp was particularly scornful of product placements -- and since he's often the conscience of the show and viewed by many as Aaron Sorkin's stand-in (see for example), his words carry a lot of weight. So it felt like Sorkin himself was weighing in -- and then in the next scene putting a Starbucks logo in center screen.

The show is already so meta, with the references to real NBC shows and inside baseball jokes and plot points. It invites the audience to think about the business and the art of television. So I think it's reasonable to question whether the show is keeping up with its own expressed standards.

On December 8, 2006 at 1:28 PM, Michael Bird said:

I have watched Studio 60 from the beginning of the season, and find its take on the backstage world of a fictional sketch comedy show very refreshing. The product placements may seem jarring at times, but no worse than any other show on television.

Anyone remember the "Dana Carvey Taco Bell Comedy Hour" on ABC back in the early 1990s?


NBC seems to be playing up the self-referential product placement a lot these days. 30 Rock played with this in its pilot episode (which I clipped & discussed on the MediaCommons site) and later via an embedded promo film for GE product integration, which was mocked and then led into a round of explicit Snapple-praising. Likewise The Office has been pretty explicit in integrating both Chilis and Staples into the plot much more than simple branded products appearing on set. Does anyone have a sense as to whether NBC is trying a unified strategy here, or is it more of a coincidence (especially given that two of the shows are behind-the-scenes TV shows)?


Cynthia, I think you are very much right about the content being an outright extension of the debate the Sorkin team is likely having. They definitely care a lot about what they view as the integrity of their show, and this is just the type of program that allows them to tease these issues out in a public forum. While I think Studio 60 has had its pitfalls along the way, I think it is brilliant in this respect, taking advantage of the "show about a show" aspect better than most others who have done something similar.

Michael, I have a cousin who I was talking about the Dana Carvey show to recently. We each thought we were the only one who had ever seen it, considering how short its duration was. But I've come to find that there were a lot of people who look back on that show, although I don't know if you were remembering it with joy or with disgust. :) But the idea of sponsored shows definitely goes back to the very beginnings of television, when Uncle Miltie was talking every week to the Texaco station workers who would dance and sing about the Texaco Star Theater.

And Jason, I'm interested in knowing more about the deal between Chili's and The Office. I don't know if you saw it a few weeks ago, but I wrote about the Chili's product placement/integration on both Veronica Mars and The OC.


Sam - thanks for the link to your Chili's post, which I'd missed. They do seem to be quite aggressive with their placements - The Office has had two episodes with a focus on Chili's. In the season 2 premiere, the company's "awards show" was hosted at Chili's, while another s2 episode "The Client" focused on Chili's as the "place where business gets done in Scranton." Check them out on DVD/iTunes, as they're great examples of really integrating a brand to signal a certain milieu and class taste - for a number of the characters, Chili's is their idea of a night out on the town.

One more NBC Chili's plug I forgot - in Scrubs, there is a resident a cappella band who in two instances sing the "baby back ribs" song. The first is amusing, but the second is pure genius.


Both instances really interesting. Taken along with the episodes of Veronica Mars and The OC, one has to think this is a major shift of focus for the restaurant chain. I hope that a journalist covers this in some detail, if they haven't already, or maybe Chili's themselves will be forthcoming about the success of this type of campaign, if it proves to be what they want.

Buying into two NBC shows, investing heavily in the launch of CW and CW shows, and prominent placement on a holiday episode of The OC--these are definitely not isolated incidents. And I think it's important to note that, when done cleverly, people enjoy these references rather than becoming angered by them. It's as I wrote about the other day, based on Mike's piece on Techdirt--people don't hate all advertising but particularly bad advertising.