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The San Francisco Chronicle (and other sources) recently reported on an initiative from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to examine embedded advertisements in TV programming (“product placements”).
Examples rolled out by reporters and the FCC itself include product placements in “American Idol” and other entertainment programming. The goal is transparency (“protect the public’s right to know”). There is a whiff of the paternalistic about this, as if a citizen seeing an Oreo bag on a show might not be grown up enough to figure out that Nabisco paid to have it there.
Now, I’m going to assert that the FCC doesn’t get it, and is missing both the forest and the trees. I know, it’s a dangerous position to take, alleging that a governmental bureaucracy might be out of touch with reality, but I’m willing to endure the withering criticism I’ll receive taking this audacious stance.
First, to see how badly they miss the trees and related foliage, you can start at the FCC web site. The first thing you may notice (after the picture of the flat-screen television — is that “category placement”?) might be two product brand names — one for a Microsoft product (Word), another for an Adobe product (Acrobat). The Microsoft product name appears 69 times, the Adobe product name 71 times, according to my quick count.
Do these links amount to product placement? Yes (they reinforce product brands of major software firms) and no (they are unpaid, utilitarian links). But in the commercial forest in which we live, you’re going to run into a branch every now and again. In fact, you could argue that the only mistake the FCC is making is not charging Microsoft and Adobe for these product placements.
But back to television. The TV programming the FCC is worried about consists primarily of entertainment shows. These are not high-caliber, editorially crafted shows supposedly reporting factual information to enlighten civil society. They are indulgences, and most viewers see them as fluff. They know when Ryan Seacrest pimps for iTunes that he is pimping for iTunes. It’s not hard to tell.
Ultimately, this is a distraction from the real issue of our time when it comes to mass media: consolidation before collapse.
The pre-collapse consolidation of mass media is leading to a loss of objective information viewers can trust, creating a vicious cycle. Bias, editorial meddling, and invisible pressures to toe a corporate line are much harder to ferret out. When Disney owns ABC which owns ESPN, the effect is likely much more pernicious. This type of media consolidation has led to our current situation of corporate overlords (according to Common Cause):
Disney owns 10 television stations, 50 radio stations, ESPN, A&E, the History Channel, Discover magazine, Hyperion publishing, Touchstone Pictures, and Miramax Film Corp. Viacom owns 39 television stations, 184 radio stations, The Movie Channel, BET, Nickelodeon, TV Land, MTV, VH1, Simon & Schuster publishing, Scribner, and Paramount Pictures. General Electric owns 13 television stations, CNBC, MSNBC, and Bravo. News Corp. owns 26 television stations, FX, Fox News Channel, TV Guide, the Weekly Standard, New York Post, DirecTV, the publisher HarperCollins, film production company Twentieth Century Fox and the social networking website MySpace.
Compared to the problems that naturally follow corporate overlords consolidating commercial power over information sources, product placement is trivial — it’s obvious, discernible, and clear. The inevitable forms of self-censorship and pablumonium caused by consolidation are, by contrast, opaque, mysterious, and subtle.
Another forest-level item the FCC is missing is that TV is in decline — in audience, influence, and commercial viability. The Web, the medium that is blossoming, has product placement all over it (see comment on linking above). Sources like Hulu show how different Web TV might become.
For more traditional sites, Google Adwords provides targeted product placement. Geo-targeting, behavioral targeting, daypart targeting, and all sorts of other whizzbang ways of placing advertising provide new forms of commercial intrusion into the user experience.
These are the real issues ahead of us. The FCC would do better to focus on the future rather than dithering over the past.