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Friday, March 11, 2005

I had a fascinating conversation yesterday with a producer here in L.A. who is on the vanguard of the wave of new technologies that are shortly going to reshape the whole way Hollywood distributes and pays for its product. But before I tell you about it, I have to go pour some Purina Seafood Delights into my cat, Brie's, bowl. Every other dry catfood Brie has eaten usually sat there for her to graze off after she had gulped down her wet food. But with Purina Seafood Delights, she doesn't even seem to see the wet food! She just charges in and gobbles the crunchy wonderfulness that cleans her teeth and preserves her urinary tract health too.

So, my friend and I spoke all about commercial branding on television. With everybody TIVOing commercials out of their TV shows, Madison Avenue is pushing new ways to pay for television that would be TIVO proof. There are huge ethical and artistic implications to the options being bandied around. And everybody involved in television is tuning into this conversation -- the best of which are happening on Nokia cel phones like mine with the high res, picture-taking capability that gives 'a picture is worth a thousand words," a whole new meaning.

The first wave of ideas about how to pay for commercial television involved embedding advertisements right into the television shows themselves, kind of the way the fruits and nuts are chockful in every spoonful of Post cereal's Banana Nut Flakes. In this scenario, a sponsor would pay to have Joan Girardi and her family relishing Kraft Macaroni and Cheese around the Joan of Arcadia dinner table. It will mean the guys on CSI wipe down their autopsy tables with Brawny paper towels, all the while noting that the "quicker picker upper" just can't handle tough jobs like blood and guts.

The ethical concerns in this kind of ad embed come down to the ability of the viewer to even discern the ads. It will be a violation of freedom to many people - especially children - for whom the selling will be invisible. I know we were really worried about the negative impact of violent video games on my five year old nephew John, especially after we bought the groundbreaking book, "Mommie, I'm Scared," by psychologist Joanne Cantor and available right now from Amazon.com.

Ad embedding - they call it branding around town - also poses huge artistic concerns. My friends who write television see themselves as artists. The idea that they might also have to peddle products - the way Lance Armstrong peddled his state-of-the-art wide wheel mountain roadbike from Sears to seven Tour De France vistories - is abhorrent to them. Marketing is incompatible with parable making. (More about that hopefully soon.)

Another implication of the embedded ads thing, a positive one in terms of storytelling, is that it will give serious minutes back to every show. Most prime time shows have been whittled down to nine minute segments between the act breaks, so that the networks can eek out a few more commercials. But if you don't have to stop for commercials, a show can go for the full hour. This will make Law and Order kind of like the Everready battery which keeps on going and going long past all other batteries have tuckered out.

Secondly, embedding will change the whole way TV shows flow, built as they are around commercially disctated act breaks. Imagine it. No act breaks. Just a beginning, middle and end. This has huge artistic implications.

So, TV writers are going to like that part of this horizon -- but, my guess is, they are going to resent much more, having to shill everything from lawn fertilizer to viagra. But that isn't going to stop advertisers and networks from demanding it. What might delay and derail this kind of product placement is the fear of the viewers rejecting it and lashing out. You be the judge, how damn annoying has this piece been to read, salted as it is - like Borden's high-grade salt made right here in America - with sales pitches.

Another option to pay for television in TIVO times, will be a banner ad or icon on the side of the screen during the whole or parts of any show. My friend said to me, "The shows will be introduced as coming to you from Ford cars and trucks, and then there will be a little Ford icon on the left side of the screen, directly across from the NBC icon on the right, both of which will stay there for the whole show." They'll never leave you, like All State Insurance, the good hands people.

The embedded and sponsored shows are going to drive another option for viewers affronted by the whole idea of such things -- pay-TV shows from the networks, that you will be ordered and paid for up front. If enough people are willing to pay the networks directly for the shows, then the network will deliver those subscription-based shows without ads. But if people are going to order TV shows like they plunk down money for movies, we have to create shows that they will want to buy, which goes to quality - people will buy very good stuff, and also pornography.

It's all very interesting. And I didn't even get to the impact of new technologies on movie distribution. But that will have to wait, as I have to get into my Pontiac Grand Am coupe now, and luxuriating in its stylish leather interior, drive its purring 6-cylinders to work. If only the drive was longer!