Everybody Loves Raymond creator/executive producer Phil Rosenthal said Thursday that the government may have to step in and regulate product integration, which he said adversely affects the creative community and is being forced on it by studios, though he later clarified to say that the key was disclosure to the public that the products were being hawked.
Rosenthal, who was testifying on behalf of the Writers Guild of America West and the Screen Actors Guild at a House Telecommunications Subcommittee hearing on the future of video, complained that the product -placement regime, where someone holds a soft drink can with the label clearly exposed, had morphed into a system, "foisted on" the creative community, in which writers and show producers were required to work products into story lines and actors were required to promote products.
He claimed there were some 4,000 product placements in network TV shows in 2006.
Rosenthal cited an episode of Desperate Housewives in which characters were extolling the virtues of a Nissan car, a Smallville episode in which a contact lens was hawked with the line :"Accuvue to the rescue," and played a clip from Seventh Heaven in which Oreos were repeatedly mentioned by name and even featured in a marriage proposal in which the ring was embedded in Oreo cream filling (just as well the bride-to-be didn't eat the middle of the Oreo first).
Rosenthal added that maybe if they were paying less attention to how to work Oreos into the story the writers would not have come up with the line that accompanies the proposal; "Will you marry me on our wedding day."
Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) may get a letter from the Oreo folks. Calling the product "unhealthy," Markey asked whether, given the childhood obesity problem, TV should be permitted to sell Oreos and other like products knowing it is targeting a child audience.
Rosenthal said that, "hopefully" the industry had a conscience and would self-regulate, but absent that "there might have to be some restrictions," he said, pointing to those on alcohol and tobacco ads.
He also said that there should be clear labeling of such plugs, adding with tongue only slightly in cheek, that they should be on the order of: "This program contains references to Reynolds Wrap. The network has been paid, but writers and actors haven't.
As to whether tougher labeling regulations were needed, Benjamin Pyne, president of Disney and ESPN Networks, pointed out that FCC regs already require disclosure of product placement. "We don't believe any new law is needed," he said.
Taking aim at American Idol, Rosenthal pointed out that the contestants had to make Ford car commercials and that the judges couldn't say anything because their mouths were full of Coke.
Picture Bogart sending Ilsa away with this line, he said: "Now, get on that plane and enjoy United's nonstop service to Paris with seats that recline a full 180 degrees.
Nebraska Republican Terry Lee used the issue to turn the conversation to Dick Wolf's Law & Order. Saying political speech was also being imbedded in shows, he said he did not watch Law & Order because it was telling him, as a conservative Republican, "how bad I am," including taking "slaps" at particular Republicans.
Rosenthal said that was an exchange of ideas and an issue of free speech, pointing out that Lee had Rush Limbaugh on his side. So, said Terry, as long as its about selling Oreos, it's bad, but attacking Republicans or promoting Hillary Clinton is fine. Yes, said Rosenthal, "I am fine with that."
"I thought you would be," said Terry.