If they gave out Emmys for the most blatant product integration in a TV series -- which trust me, I'm sure they will someday -- this year's hands-down winner would be last week's episode of "Make It or Break It," the highly rated ABC Family network series that follows the ups and downs of a group of teenage girl Olympic gymnastics hopefuls.
I'm not normally an expert on the interior lives of teen girls, but my 11-year-old son is a gymnast and, like many of his gymnast pals, he has been closely following the show, since young boys rarely get a chance to see a TV series that delves into the exotic world of double back handsprings and tsukaharas.
If you haven't been following the evolution of broadcast television, it is hardly a shock to discover that a wide variety of networks, fearing that TiVo-equipped viewers are no longer paying any attention to the commercials, have made deals to embed commercials into the scripted parts of the shows. The most notorious example of this occurred during a three-episode arc of "Seventh Heaven," where the show's characters repeatedly gushed over the joys of Oreos.
Ben Silverman, the recently departed NBC programming chief, was a particular master of the art, having aggressively made product integration deals that allowed stealth advertising to burrow its way into NBC shows, including "30 Rock" and "My Own Worst Enemy," where everyone was seen driving a GM vehicle. As it turns out, ABC Family has also been hard at work integrating advertising into shows such as "Make It or Break It" and "Greek," which once had its characters go see the movie "Hot Rod" and claim it was hilarious -- the result of a deal with Paramount Pictures, which released the film (which, sad to say, was a flop, despite the great plug from "Greek").
The network also has a long-standing relationship with Kohl's, the low-end department store that is currently using Britney Spears to tout Candie's, a brand name for teen girls' shoes and clothes that apparently is in dire need of an image overhaul.
Whether Spears' risque brand of come-hither pop is the right way to go is definitely in question -- Dr. Laura is certainly not enthusiastic about Kohl's using Spears' slutty sex appeal to woo young girls' hearts -- but when it comes to product plugs, you certainly have to admire the Disney-owned channel's chutzpah.
When I got back from vacation the other night, we fired up the TiVo to watch "Make It or Break It," which (for all the complaints I'm about to register about its stealth ads) deserves its good ratings -- it's a well-written show that offers a fresh take on the often emotionally fraught world of adolescence and competitive sports. During the show's first commercial break, ABC Family ran a Candie's ad, which featured Spears wearing a lot of black lingerie and striking suggestive poses while eyeballing polo players through Marie Antoinette-style field glasses. Then we returned to the show itself, where literally -- and I do mean literally -- the first line of dialogue featured Lauren, the show's blond bad-girl gymnast, holding up a new outfit, saying, "Hey, look at what I got from Kohl's!"
"Oh, adorable," her friend Kaylie, the good-girl gymnast, responded, checking out the outfit. "From the new Candie's line," Lauren helpfully explained.
In a vain attempt at a laugh line, not to mention a bid for the show's writers to salvage their self-respect, Kaylie quips: "What are you? Their spokesmodel?" Lauren is unfazed. After all, she does have a product to plug. "Hey, good enough for Britney," she says huffily, "is good enough for me."
All I can say, a bit huffily myself, is like, wow! I know the Writers Guild has been incredibly busy shaming the TV academy into rolling back its decision to exile a bunch of writing awards from the Emmys telecast, but surely it could manage to muster up a little more consistent outrage at the bare-faced "plugola" that now dominates television. Isn't it time the guild regularly called out networks like ABC Family that have turned their guild members into shameless hucksters, pressuring them into writing breathless product plugs that kiss up to the show's sponsors and pour big wads of cash into the networks' pockets?
At bare minimum, the guild should insist on getting its fair share from the plugola. After all, once you put aside the quips and the clever asides designed to make everyone in the writers room feel a little less guilty about hustling for Kohl's, this is just a sellout, pure and simple. And if you're gonna sell yourself out, shouldn't you at least get paid too?