Rosenthal: Keep content plug-free

'Raymond' creator blasts product integration on TV

The insinuation of products into television shows threatens to turn America's favorite programs into big commercials that could undermine creative integrity, harm viewers and cut into the potential profits of show creators while they enrich the shows' producers, studios and networks, the creator of "Everyone Loves Raymond" told U.S. lawmakers Thursday.

Speaking to members of the House Commerce Committee's telecommunications subcommittee, Phil Rosenthal decried the practice known as product integration, saying viewers should at least be warned that advertising for products is embedded in the shows they watch.

"They've decided to turn the show into a commercial," Rosenthal told the panel.

Although product integration has been a flash point in Hollywood, Rosenthal's testimony for the WGA West and SAG was the first many lawmakers had heard.

During the panel's continuing examination of the nation's digital future, he showed the panel a clip from the CW's "7th Heaven" in which actors spoke about how good Oreos taste. Rosenthal said the show's creators were forced to put in the scene and language about Oreos, which included a marriage proposal featuring the ring hidden inside the cookie.

Added Rosenthal: "Would we have wanted our memories of 'Casablanca' to include (Humphrey) Bogart saying to Ingrid Bergman as they say goodbye: 'You're part of his life, the thing that keeps him going. Now get on that plane and enjoy United's nonstop, three-class service to Paris with seats that recline to a full 180 degrees.' "

Rosenthal warned the lawmakers against dismissing product integration as "trivial."

"This often subtle but always insidious blurring of the line between content and commerce is an issue not just for the creative community but for the American viewing public as well," he said. "For the public, product integration exploits the emotional connections that viewers have with shows and their characters in order to sell merchandise. It raises the serious issue of adequate disclosure."

It was unclear if the lawmakers would take action; however, the FCC recently approved $12.5 million in consent decrees that settles payola allegations against four of the nation's largest radio broadcasters.

Although lawmakers were given notice that the product integration issue was unlikely to go away, the main business of the panel was to examine the future of video in the digital universe.

As if to underline its importance, subcommittee chairman and U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., pulled out a digital camera at the start of the hearing and posted the video on YouTube.

His video was a way of demonstrating that user-generated video was changing the way television is distributed. He noted that YouTube had not even existed at the beginning of 2005 and was now hosting 100 million postings a day.