Apparently, I got it all wrong. I thought the idea of network sweeps was to entice viewers. However, this past November sweeps underwhelmed with lukewarm remakes (The Poseidon Adventure); annoying pre-emptions (Felicity: An American Girl Adventure instead of Gilmore Girls); irritating schedule scrambling; or worse, removing shows entirely (Threshold, for instance, replaced with The Ghost Whisperer). In addition to these irritations was the concurrent increase in product placements, as reader Brian G. of South Austin wrote in to complain about.
"I just turned off CSI: NY after a blatant product placement: Coldplay on an investigator's cell phone. The next commercial break advertised take a guess? The new Coldplay CD. Unreal! How much do the TV networks think we can take? They hit my limit tonight on CBS."
I had a similar experience during an episode of Medium when Alison Dubois (Patricia Arquette) and husband Joe (Jake Weber) happen upon a newspaper ad for Memoirs of a Geisha. "We should go see that," Allison says. Joe holds up the full-page ad. Lo and behold, the next commercial break featured a trailer for the film. Wow. Didn't see that coming.
All of this got me to thinking: When does jarring product placement become witty pop culture reference? Shows like The OC, Gilmore Girls, Veronica Mars, and others known for their repartee are filled with pop-culture references that are deemed cool and sometimes astute: The literary, film, and music references in Gilmore Girls alone are enough to keep a cultural studies student nodding in recognition for weeks.
The obvious response is when an item is not being sold, but it's also a matter of timing. When something is introduced onto the pop cultural landscape (say, Memoirs of a Geisha) there is an incubation period to see if it will take. By either being exceptional or abysmal, films, celebrities, TV series, pieces of music, and other items of cultural production graduate to pop cultural references. The sell, then, moves beyond whether the public will spend cold cash and on to whether they will keep the piece of cultural production alive by using it as a reference. In other words, there are probably more people who would prefer to invoke Pauly Shore's name than to drop $10 to see him on screen.
As I mentioned in a previous "TV Eye," TV and other media are in flux. Technology and other changes have enabled audiences to reform their expectations and seek what they want to see elsewhere if the existing formats don't please them. I don't take a "the sky is falling" attitude toward it. Rather, since TV is my particular interest, I'm waiting for when those in the TV industry will make the paradigm shift and realize, as On the Media host Bob Garfield recently said at a Ball State University lecture, "that the media as it exists is headed for extinction due to a fragmented audience and a significant loss of advertising dollars." Furthermore, according to a Ball State Daily News report by Sean Bueter published Nov. 30, Garfield calls this time of change a "chaos scenario" and says that the "existing media giants will give way to less expensive outlets ... small specialized operations will become the dominant forces in media." (On the Media airs locally Saturdays at 6am on KUT.)
While none of this is happening or will happen in an orderly fashion (resistance to change rarely does), the good news in all of this is that audience desire will drive this change and that it has the potential to create a more democratic media landscape. If you're not finding what you want, you can look elsewhere or as the existing behemoths of media culture fear create your own media content. The social implications of this are fascinating: On the downside is a universe of small media communities unaware of those outside their own, making for a sheltered view of the world. But I prefer to look at the upside and think that the truly curious will be led by their desire to click in and see what's out there. There's still the issue of access: Tech toys and accoutrements are not cheap, but prices are falling, and it's up to media advocates to make sure no community gets left behind.
As always, stay tuned. Or not. Really, it's up to you.
Speaking of alternate media sources, Comedy Central recently announced that a "sneak peek" of sketches from the third season of Chappelle's Show left in limbo when host Dave Chappelle went MIA will be offered prior to Last Laugh '05, airing Sunday, Dec. 11, at 8pm. The sneak peek repeats on Comedy Central's online broadband channel, Motherload (www.comedycentral.com/motherload) on Dec. 12.