Product placement is a symbol of trust

Whether you agree with his judgement or not, one thing you can’t accuse the new culture secretary of being is indecisive.

Andy Burnham got straight to grips with the nettle of product placement, and its tendency to blur editorial and commercial lines, by telling us he didn’t like it. Not at all: not only did it threaten to “contaminate” programming but “as a viewer” Burnham said he “didn’t want to feel the script has been written by the commercial (is there any other sort?) marketing director”.

Was he right to be so forthright and personally negative on an issue that many in commercial circles hold dear to their hearts?Certainly Burnham’s stance has precluded an open discussion on the merits of introducing product placement. The incoming European Union Audio Visual Media Services directive, which provided the platform for his first public address on broadcasting, merely calls for consultation in each member state. And clearly Burnham has blown a big raspberry at that.

All very odd really, given that Stephen Carter had expressed overt sympathy for the principle of placement shortly before he quit Ofcom for his present job as Gordon Brown’s chief of communications strategy. But then, a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then, much of it mucky and malodorous.

And for this the television broadcasting community, including the BBC, has no one but itself to blame. If it hadn’t been for the widespread, cynical extortion of cash via corrupt phone-in TV quizzes and rigged competitions, the culture secretary would not have had a moral leg to stand on in adopting the uncompromising position he has.

What a gift to the naysayers of product placement the abuse of public trust has been. Can anyone, in the light of what we now know has taken place, seriously contend that the “contamination” of content would not – once PP had been given the go-ahead – swiftly and insidiously, spread? Well yes, ITV’s Rupert Howell, as it turns out. But it cannot be said his is a majority view, or (on this at least) an ethically unimpeachable, position.

So, consultation or no consultation, that’s it for now. But rest assured, the tide has only gone out. It will soon, inexorably, be back lapping around Canute’s ankles. That’s because the future model of television production, including “television-like” services on the internet, requires alternative revenue streams such as product placement. The current models, whether public funding or advertising, are slowly but inevitably beating a retreat. What replaces them will be more complex, multi-faceted and certainly harder to handle from the viewpoint of editorial integrity.

Come to think of it, that future is already with us: it’s staring out from our cinema screens, the increasing number of US cult soaps on television and Kate Modern on the Web. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand. We can’t be expected to watch blank screens for large parts of our 24/7 existences, can we?


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