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Economy & Business

In The 'Golden Age Of Television,' Advertising Intersects With Programming

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Here's a sign of the times. Last night, I was watching the new "Late Show With Stephen Colbert." It was actually Monday night's show. And as always, I fast-forwarded past the commercials. I did not fast forward past Colbert when he came on screen after a commercial break.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: And how can one ever truly know oneself when all our perceptions are trapped within our own subjectivity?

SIEGEL: I watched as Colbert dipped a Taco Bell A.M. Crunchwrap into a container of Stephen Colbert's Americone Dream ice cream. It's Ben & Jerry's.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

COLBERT: Or is it really me who enjoys Taco Bell's California A.M. Crunchwraps

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: It was all a lead into a sketch about Stephen's identity crisis. And it was pulled off with Colbert giving an insider's wink to the audience, but it was clearly product placement. look to the audience. But it was clearly product placement. The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum writes about this sort of thing in an essay in the current issue. She says it's symptomatic of what's actually a golden age of television that we're now witnessing. Welcome to the program.

EMILY NUSSBAUM: Hi. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: What we just heard Stephen Colbert do, what I saw last night also, it involved products. It also involved a wink to the audience. What's going on at that moment?

NUSSBAUM: That is what's called product integration. It's an ad that was paid for by the product that Stephen Colbert is doing on the air. And that's not something new. People at the beginning of television did that as well.

But it's part of a larger trend that's happening with television right now, where it's reviving those old models of putting the ads into the shows, something that used to be true on TV, faded a bit over time and has revived in part because of the economic crisis in television.

SIEGEL: The economic crisis reflects, in part, my recording the program and then fast forwarding through the commercials and not looking at them.

NUSSBAUM: Exactly. TV changed radically when people were able to save it, pause it, fast-forward it. And now it gets distributed a million different ways. You can binge watch it. You can stream it. You can buy. You can steal it. This all changes the way that it's funded. And for people who love television, they're not necessarily thinking about the way it's made, the way it's paid for. But because this is the primary concern for me as a critic - what TV is doing as an art form - I'm concerned about the way the business model effects that and, in this particular piece I'm talking about, the way in which there's all sorts of open and hidden ads inside the programs.

SIEGEL: Not just Colbert, but we're talking about dramas or sitcoms on television. If we see people talking about a product, very possibly - we're not told this; there's no disclosure - but very possibly, the sponsor has paid for that moment.

NUSSBAUM: Yes, exactly. If you see a character on television and they're talking about how great the blender in their kitchen is, it's likely paid for by the blender. And the goal with those is sometimes they're done as ironic funny ones, as on "30 Rock," and sometimes they're just blended into the dialogue. A lot of people think that great integration is integration that is organic and you don't notice it or it's funny. In this piece, I essentially argue that that's the worst kind of integration because it sedates people and makes the whole thing acceptable. That's the argument I'm making in this piece, and I think it's somewhat of a difficult one for people to accept because nobody wants to feel like the sourpuss who's wincing at their television for giving them an ad.

But for me, as an art form, for it to explode and progress the way it has, I want to be able to believe the stories that are happening before me. I want to be a partner to the artist telling me something and not to the advertiser cleverly hiding, flacking for their product.

SIEGEL: Well, you're a critic. If you look at a program and you see products being mentioned or used but there's no disclosure as to whether that's paid for or not, does it upset you?

NUSSBAUM: Yeah, it does upset me. I actually feel emotional about this, and I think that that's fine. I think that when you love art, you should be vulnerable to it. And one of the things that those somewhat toxic effect of ads and how they shape the narrative on television work is that they are designed to take advantage of people's vulnerability this way. If you believe in a character and they're talking about a brand, then you will buy what they say. That's the point for the advertisers.

But there's another side effect of this, which is that shows can't say critical things about brands. They can't say critical things about large corporations because they're part of them. You know, there's all sorts of side effects to this. But the main thing that I'm trying to do in this piece is to make it visible so people are aware of it and they're not just sedated by it.

SIEGEL: Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker, thanks for talking with us.

NUSSBAUM: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: Emily Nussbaum's piece is called "The Price Is Right: What Advertising Does To TV." [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story mistakenly characterizes a segment on the The Late Show With Stephen Colbert as paid product placement. Representatives from both Taco Bell and Ben & Jerry's have told us this was not the case.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 7, 2015 at 11:00 PM CDT
This story mistakenly characterizes a segment on the The Late Show With Stephen Colbert as paid product placement. Representatives from both Taco Bell and Ben & Jerry's have told us this was not the case.