One of the joys of watching serious dramas on premium cable networks is being spared the hassle of having to fast-forward through 20 minutes of commercials, but that doesn’t mean your favorite cable TV series are completely ad-free.
If you’ve been watching Showtime’s “Homeland” this year, you are probably well-acquainted with a little website called YouTube. The video-sharing behemoth owned by Google Inc. has featured prominently as a plot device on the show’s latest season, beginning with the Oct. 5 premiere in which a Pakistani medical student shocks the international community by uploading a video of an innocent Wedding party wiped out by a CIA drone strike. Later, when the CIA station chief responsible for the strike is beaten to death in retaliation, that incident, too, becomes available on — you guessed it — YouTube.
In one sense, the plot device is an obvious and natural creative choice. YouTube is a ubiquitous part of the modern world, after all, and references to the brand add realism to any storyline involving online videos. But last week’s episode — in which the brooding Peter Quinn (played by Rupert Friend) spends several minutes scrutinizing YouTube clips on his computer — proved that “Homeland” producers are not averse to featuring very prominent close-ups of YouTube’s familiar red-and-black logo. In one scene, when Claire Danes’ Carrie Mathison prints out a screenshot of an incriminating video, the YouTube logo is conveniently printed out along with it.
YouTube is just one of a number of major tech brands that routinely appear on “Homeland,” which is set in a fast-paced world where CIA operatives chat by Skype, type on Dell computers and make life-saving calls on Sprint cellphones. For viewers turned off by excessive product placement, it can feel a little like brand overkill.
“I do find it irritating when I’m watching a show and they hold up a brand,” said Adam Armbruster, a TV advertising consultant and senior partner at ESA & Company. “I do feel patronized as a viewer.”
To be fair, product placement is as old as TV itself, but on supposedly commercial-free outlets like Showtime, HBO and Netflix — which pride themselves on the high-quality, uncompromised storytelling of their original series — there is still a serious taboo around the paid integration of brands and products. Shows like “The Sopranos” or “Orange Is the New Black” are meant to be seen as artistic, Emmy-worthy contenders, not shallow platforms for corporate shills. The typical industry response to paid product placement is that it simply doesn’t happen on premium, subscriber-based networks.
“We do not do any paid product placement in our programming,” HBO spokesman Jeff Cusson told International business Times.
His stance was echoed by Netflix spokeswoman Karen Barragan: “Netflix does not do product placement deals on our series,” she said.
Cased closed, it would seem. And yet anyone who has watched Netflix’s “House of Cards,” which has been ridiculed for its gratuitous close-up shots of iPhones and BlackBerrys, could easily infer otherwise. So what’s the real story? While commercial-free networks may not take corporate advertising dollars in the traditional sense, that doesn’t mean brands haven’t figured out a way into the programming.
“There are definitely people out there whose job it is to get products placed in these shows,” said Mark DiMassimo, chief executive of the DiMassimo Goldstein advertising firm in New York.
DiMassimo should know. More than a decade ago, he helped get a poster of “Crunch Fitness” into a scene on HBO’s “The Sopranos.” He said a typical placement deal will involve production companies working closely with product-placement firms to lower production costs. What better way to lower production costs than to let a major brand come in and furnish your set for free? So while “House of Cards,” for example, may not take money from Apple Inc. directly, it likely gets a boatload of free iPhones.
And maybe other amenities as well. “I’ve seen deals where companies would offer to build entire sets, like a supermarket isle,” DiMassimo said.
It’s not something networks or production companies like to talk about, however. “It’s a backroom industry,” said Armbruster. “They won’t call it paid placement. They’ll call it ‘production sponsorship’ or ‘production support,’ or ‘services provided by.’ Well, what do you think that is? They’re paying for the show’s production. So of course they’re going to get some kind of a plug.”
Paid with ad dollars or not, it’s a plug with a lot of value. Armbruster, who helped place ads on NBC’s “The Apprentice,” said a 30-second spot on that show — which pulled in about 5 million viewers per episode — would sell for about $250,000. By comparison, “Homeland” has been pulling in less than 2 million an episode, but unlike traditional commercials, product placement has staying power. Ten years from now, if people are still binge-watching “Homeland,” they’re going to see a CIA office lined with Dell laptops. “These shows have a long comet tail,” Armbruster said.
As for last week’s YouTube-heavy storylines, we may never know if they were organically written or not. A spokeswoman for Showtime declined to comment on product placement and instead referred IBTimes to Fox 21, the studio that produces the show. A spokesman for that studio did not respond to follow-up requests. Press reps for YouTube and Google also dodged questions.
Still, the YouTube product placement is notable for one key reason. While Google-owned products may be ubiquitous in real life, they’re still curiously absent from films and TV shows. Most producers, it seems, would rather conjure up generic search engines and video sites, or avoid showing computer screens altogether. (It’s a familiar trick reminiscent of the 555 prefix used for fictitious phone numbers.)
But if “Homeland” writers are truly making references to YouTube for no other reason but because it works in the story, that could signal a new era of brand agnosticism, where references to big tech companies are as ubiquitous in movies and shows as they are in real life. For high-quality dramas, that could backfire. “I think when you get into the really slick programming, viewers are alienated by product placement,” Armbruster said. “Personally, I’d rather see an ad. At least it’s honest.”
Got a news tip? Email Christopher Zara here. Follow him on Twitter @christopherzara.