After years of treating "integration" as a dirty word, the people behind many of TV's biggest shows have changed their tune and are embracing them as something beneficial to their shows, rather than a punishment that must be endured. "We like having that extra money that allows us to do some scenes, or buy music, we otherwise wouldn't be able to," said Modern Family co-creator Steve Levitan. "In some cases, it actually helps the scene. It sounds more natural to say, 'Who wants to go to Target with me?' than, 'Who wants to go to the department store with me?'"
Yet in a surprising role reversal, as TV's showrunners (including a dozen that spoke with Adweek) are more receptive than ever to integrations, buyers and brands no longer have the same enthusiasm for them. "It used to be the showcase in a buy, to say we brought in integration," said Neil Vendetti, president of investment at Zenith. "Now we're talking about integrations with clients a bit less."
That sentiment is reflected in new data from Nielsen TV Brand Effect, which indicates that the number of integrations in original, nonsports prime-time programming on the five broadcast networks has fallen each year, from 4,701 in the 2013-14 season to 4,538 in the 2015-16 season.
That's not to say that TV integrations aren't still plentiful, or high profile. In last season's most successful partnership, Empire featured a multi-episode arc in which rising star Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett) was wooed by Pepsi to endorse the soda. As the cast sat down to watch the ad, Empire cut to commercial where the actual spot played. "That was pure kismet because we broke a story in the [writers] room where we said, Jamal is going to get a major endorsement, and it's going to be a threat to [his father] Lucious because it means he's going to be a bigger star," said Empire showrunner Ilene Chaiken. "Then I got a call from the network, saying, 'We have this opportunity with Pepsi,' and it was exactly the story we were telling."
But the mindset of many advertisers is much different from when integrations were the shiny new toy. "Nine or 10 years ago, there was a big migration toward product placement. Then we moved away from it because it became too overt and almost too generic," said Maureen Bosetti, chief investment officer at Initiative. Back then, "the demand for integrations was greater than the supply," said Melissa Fallon, svp of digital, film and TV at The Marketing Arm. "The networks were scrambling to find solutions for the declining impressions for advertising. Now there's more solutions."
Those include branded content, which "has filled in the gap" as some have backed away from integrations, said Vendetti. In-house branded content studios have popped up at several media companies, including NBCUniversal, Viacom and Turner. Branded content requires less hoops for brands to jump through than integrations, which have to be incorporated into a storyline; unlike integrations, the finished spot can be featured on the brand's channels as well.
Meanwhile, other brands that would like to be integrated into shows aren't allowed at the table. "Emerging brands like Lyft are looking for that increased awareness, affinity and brand identification, but they don't meet the media buy threshold, so they don't even get to play," said Fallon. "It's not that the producers aren't interested in those brands; it's that the networks are shutting them down."
Until that changes, the showrunners, tasked with producing movie-quality episodes each week on a TV budget, said they're happy to take advantage of any opportunities to organically work a brand into their series. "I know that has been an issue in the past with certain members of the Writers Guild, but if it means more money on the screen, then I'm all for it," said Melissa Rosenberg, showrunner of Marvel's Jessica Jones on Netflix. "Fake brands just pop, so whenever we can use real brands, I prefer it. And if they'll give it to us for free, then I prefer that!"
This story first appeared in the October 17, 2016 issue of Adweek magazine.