WGA Seeks Placement Conduct Code

LOS ANGELES With the backing of the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild of America released a policy paper today threatening to seek tougher Federal Communications Commission regulation of product integration if producers fail to open negotiations with the WGA on establishing a code of conduct governing placement and compensating writers who weave brands into story lines.

The white paper, which outlines the official position of both the WGA West and the WGA East on the issue of product integration, was made public at a news conference today at the WGA’s offices here. WGAW president Patric Verrone, interim executive director David Young and SAG Hollywood division chair and first national vp Anne-Marie Johnson presented the paper.

The report warns that the WGA is preparing an FCC complaint that documents the ongoing violation of FCC regulations in the rapidly growing product integration arena. It also calls for full and clear disclosure of branded entertainment deals at the beginning of each TV show.

Examples of adjusting storylines to accommodate advertisers, per the WGA, include: A Wal-Mart perfume plug in All My Children; Gabrielle expounding on the virtues of the Buick LaCrosse on Desparate Housewives; Procter & Gamble’s agreement with the WB network for placement in programs such as What I Like About You, leading to a scene in which a character emoted over a Swiffer-brand dust mop; and the daytime drama Passions which has embraced EPT Home Pregnancy Test, Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and JC Penney in storylines.

“Along with being asked to create memorable stories and characters, our writers are being told to perform the function of ad copywriter, but to disguise this as storytelling . . . the guild does not want its members put in the unacceptable position of facilitating violations of FCC regulations. We therefore think this issue ultimately requires discussion both at the bargaining table and before the FCC in Washington.”

With most actors also failing to receive compensation for product integration deals, SAG is joining ranks with the WGA, and Verrone said the Writers Guild is hoping other Hollywood unions like AFTRA and the DGA will participate in the effort.

“The sharp increase of product placement in film and television too often takes place without any compensation to the very performers that are expected to push those products—and more often is done without any consultation with those performers and their representatives,” SAG president Alan Rosenberg said. “It is time for producers to work with artists on this issue, and the best way to do that is to establish a cooperative code of conduct that will protect the artist, the viewing public and advertiser-supported, free television.”

The WGA white paper calls for the establishment of a code of conduct that includes full and clear disclosure of product integration deals at the beginning of each program; strict limits on the use of integration in children’s programming; a voice for storytellers, actors and directors about how a product or brand is to be integrated into the content; and the extension of all regulation of product integration to cable television.

“This code of conduct can be established through negotiations with our business partners. Failing that, we will seek additional FCC regulation,” the white paper said.

David Young, executive director of WGA West, said the effort on behalf of the guild is an effort to preclude government regulation of an increasingly thorny area of commerce by voluntary compliance. He described FCC regulation as a “fall back” position in the event that writers continue to be pressured to include product placement without their consent or compensation, leading to a diminution of show quality.

Young said the scope of the paper did not include branded content shows (such as those produced through independent agency Wieden + Kennedy for MTV on behalf of Nike), as agency copywriters are rarely WGA members.

He also drew a distinction between “stealth issues” and plainly sponsored shows such as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, though he stopped short of endorsing commercial alliances such as “[Disney’s] Chicken Little in a Sears commercial on a show sponsored by Sears on ABC [which owns Disney] . . . The problem is truth in advertising, especially when it comes to children’s programming.”

Young said a code of conduct would cover the ethics of such potential situations wherein marketers could align with WGA writers directly, as SAG actors, for example, are said to be compensated for talk-show plugs.

Since the current WGA contract doesn’t expire until November 2007, the guild appears to be focusing more on establishing an industry code of conduct than on seeking increased compensation for its writers, at least for the time being.

But the white paper stipulates that negotiations would also cover the appropriate compensation for the additional work involved in writing brands into content, “some of which may exceed the number of revisions provided for in the collective bargaining agreement in addition to those provisions regarding merchandising rights and payment.”

The report is particularly critical of reality television, reflecting the WGA’s ongoing campaign to organize reality TV writers and story editors, most of whom work without the benefit of union-guaranteed wages or working conditions.

And, in fact, Verrone said the best place for negotiations on compensation for writers who weave brands into scripts would be at the bargaining table with reality writers.

So far, both networks and producers have rejected the WGA’s efforts to bargain on behalf of reality writers.

Despite the WGA’s harsh warnings about seeking FCC intervention, Verrone said the guild would still prefer to resolve its complaints about product integration at the bargaining table.

“You bring in the government, you bring in Big Brother, you bring in the FCC, it may go in a wholly different direction than if we actually bargained with our employers and our bargaining partners,” he said.

This story updates an item posted earlier today with coverage of the WGA’s press conference.