It is Screen Week or something like that, as part of the first annual Canadian Screen Awards. The Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television and the Banff World Media Festival put on a few panel sessions yesterday as part of the celebration of all things Canadian and screen-based.
It was a packed room at the new Four Season Hotel (I went first to the old location – some habits die hard) with representation from film, tv and digital people. The panel discussions didn’t fully reflect the audience though they were interesting. The first panel was on “Content Marketing”, which is apparently a very new buzzword that pretty much means product integration. Then there was an interview with Meg Tilly of “Bomb Girls” and a Media Leaders panel with the usual heads of Bell, Rogers, Shaw and Corus (sadly Kirstine Stewart of CBC couldn’t make it, but more on that later). That’s a pretty tv-heavy afternoon. Just sayin’.
Before I get into the Content Marketing panel, let’s just go over a few definitions. Product placement is putting your product in a scene like Reese’s Pieces in “E.T.” or those ubiquitous Coke branded cups in “American Idol”. Product integration is putting a product into the story line like the hilarious episode of “Modern Family” where Cameron and Mitchell discover the joys of Costco. Common wisdom is that with PVRs and on demand viewing, people are watching fewer commercials so there is now a greater need to insert the brands into the entertainment programming to get the eyeballs. The broadcasters on the panel (CBC, Shaw and Bell) didn’t agree that the 30 second spot is dying but they do see the value in product integration as a new tool to reach viewers. I suspect that the broadcaster business model is too closely tied to the 30 second spot to be able to imagine life without it.
I haven’t seen any research but my gut is telling me that there’s a lot more product integration than there used to be. The biggest problem is that it isn’t always well done. [I just finished a “Fringe” binge on Netflix and laughed out loud in one episode at a demonstration of Sprint’s mobile payment system that didn’t fit neatly into the story line.] There was great insight from Sharon MacLeod, VP Marketing at Unilever Canada (Dove, Hellmann’s, Lipton Tea, Degree and more). She said that the biggest problem that she found was that there were too many people between the brand and the creators. She wanted to just be able to talk to the creators about her goals, the nature of the brand and what was possible within the program. But instead it goes out to the agency, which gets in touch with the broadcaster, who talks to the producer who then talks to the screenwriter. The broadcasters jumped on this immediately – there was no way that they were going to allow a conversation on brand integration without them.
MacLeod’s other piece of very useful insight was to recommend that not every brand will fit easily into entertainment content. The brand has to be ‘about’ something that can be communicated easily. Heat-activated Degree is not a good brand for product integration but Lipton Tea is (I still remember the episode of “Being Erica” where it introduced Lipton Tea Infusions perhaps a bit too much – but since I do remember it perhaps not too much).
But – don’t be a proactive producer and get in touch with the perfect brand for your show. The broadcasters do not like that. At all. That’s their job. They do have to fit brands into their existing relationships but is that all that’s at stake here? This might not be the case but the reaction of the panel to that issue and the one about not being left out of the conversation came across like the broadcasters were not going to let product integration out of their control. They need to control relationships and revenue streams. This is unfortunate.
If broadcasters could be a bit more open to new models and include the producers in the revenue stream then product integration could be planned and created better. We could have some fabulous content that entertains as well as markets. Because for me, product integration is successful if either I don’t notice it (eg. sure they’re all using Apple computers but why wouldn’t they be?) or I do and it’s entertaining (eg. Claire on Modern Family lining up at the Apple Store for the new iPad). We can and should be able to do better. With the rise in commercial-free on demand viewing, content marketing isn’t going away.
The issue of broadcaster control came up again in the Media Leaders panel. It was a shame that work kept Kirstine Stewart from the CBC away from the panel, not only because then it would not have been all guys, but also because she provides an alternative perspective to that of the vertically integrated big companies whose primary aim is to increase revenues for their shareholders. Without her, the panel’s message was clear – big broadcasters want less regulation and more control of the programs and their revenue streams. It wasn’t clear whether the panel didn’t understand their audience of producers or didn’t care, but either way their message wasn’t well received. It is hard work to get a television show financed. Producers and talent want and need the revenues from exploitation to survive and if it’s a hit, maybe even thrive. After the years of hard work that it took to get Terms of Trade with Bell, Astral, Shaw and Rogers, I think a few heads exploded when Keith Pelley said that Terms of Trade were broken and need to be renegotiated – with the broadcasters getting a better share of revenues.
It was an interesting afternoon but the clear theme was that broadcasters are in control of the business models of television and want it to stay that way. The media landscape is rapidly changing and that might not be the best way to adapt to it.
Update: See Simon Houpt’s article in the Globe and Mail for quotes from the Media Leaders panel and CMPA President Michael Hennessy’s response.