Column: December 16, 2009

My first regular column. Rather po-faced, I reckon…


SO YOU’RE watching the television, ITV1 because sometimes you want to slum it, or maybe you’ve got some sort of weird affliction which makes you unable to sleep until you’ve watched some rubbish with Robson Green in it.

Then, all of a sudden, Green starts eating a Muller Fruit Corner yoghurt. “Mmm,” he says, “You know what, feisty-yet-put-upon-character-played-by-Caroline-Quentin, I doubt ’d be the all-action vet I am today if I didn’t have a Muller Fruit Corner every day.”

Welcome to the future. The Department of Culture, Media and Velodromes is planning to allow product placement in British-made television programmes.

It’s our fault, of course. Advertisers aren’t getting the oomph they once got when the old ITV could show Tom O’Connor sitting on a bucket and pull in 76m viewers because the only competition was the fourth repeat of an episode of The Good Life on BBC1 and a Czechoslovakian cartoon on BBC2.

Add to that the fact that nobody watches the adverts any more – the curse of the Sky Plus box and the fast forward button – and you can see exactly why ITV1 is desperate to give the advertisers something, anything, to bolster the company’s plummeting revenues.

According to OFCOM, product placement could bring in £35m a year to commercial broadcasters.But the previous Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, late of this parish, was adamant that product placement had no place in British television. He said: “There are some lines that we should not cross –  one of which is that you can buy the space between the programmes on commercial channels, but not the space within them.”

Of course, Burnham’s now supping from the poison chalice over at the Department of Health, and his successor, Ben Bradshaw, is considerably more relaxed about product placement.

“There is no doubt that  commercial broadcasters are suffering in this challenging economic climate,” said Bradshaw.

“Programme-makers have argued that our current stance on product placement will put them at a competitive disadvantage against international rivals, particularly from the US”.

He may well have a point. I suppose we’ll know for sure if the next series of Ugly Betty is packed with references to Marmite and Jack Bauer disarms a  thermonuclear device in 24 using Vimto and a bag of Hula Hoops.

In any case, the Government has rushed into a consultation period, finishing on January 8. Whatever happens, product placement will be banned in children’s TV, and there would be restrictions on the promotion of alcohol, junk food and gambling.

It all sounds very harmless. We’re all grown-ups, aren’t we?

But the principle Burnham espoused before his elevation is a good one. There ought to be a clear distinction between editorial content and advertising.

This newspaper often prints features which have been paid for by advertisers. These features are clearly marked “Advertising Feature.” If we started to sneak endorsements of particular products into regular news stories because an advertiser had crossed our palm with silver, we would be betraying your trust.

And this isn’t just a matter of the occasional shot of a box of Oxo in the foreground. Brand managers would interfere in the production of specific programmes. They would insist that black-hatted Billy McEvil, the baddest bank manager in East Grinstead, would never eat their corn flakes. Perhaps, whisper it softly, he might eat the corn flakes of a competitor.

The solution is in ITV’s hands: produce programmes that people want to see, more Doc Martins, more TV Burps, more X-Factors, and the audience will come. If the audience comes, so will the advertisers. And so the question of compromising the trust between broadcaster and viewer need not arise.

And everybody will be happy. Especially Robson Green’s agent.

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