The BBC In The Product Placement Spotlight

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 19 September 2005

The BBC featured in a lot of media headlines over the weekend - and it is never likely to be good when you become the story rather than report the story.

Firstly it was journalists reporting that allegedly a media mogul said that allegedly a world leader said something or other about the BBC's impartiality when talking about the USA recently.

The second story concerned the issue of product placement within BBC programmes, following a sting operation exposé featuring a fake brand of beer in the Sunday Times.

Or as one ever-entertaining poster on Points Of View put it:

Seems that greedy BBC producers have been taking bribes to "promote" products on the BBC....

...

So here it is, they preach about the BBC being Advert free....then they go and do adverts anyway, but subliminal, take the benefits for themselves....and then STILL chase you to prison if you don't pay the licence fee......

The BBC is Corrupt.....no wonder people are turning away in droves...the BBC is a sick organisation, that only represents greedy luvvies out on the take.........

The BBC has said that the allegations will be investigated.

Now I'm fairly certain that no producer on the BBC payroll can be ignorant of the comprehensive rules covering this sort of activity. The closest I ever get to being involved with television production is peering through the glass in the observation galleries at Television Centre, or getting immovable transmission related deadlines for the launch of sites or products. However even I know the rules inside out. In my time at the BBC I've been educated about it twice during inductions, and again in an editorial guidelines training test all staff had to take late last year.

Chiefly for my work it is an issue of how and where the BBC site links (or "hotlinks" as the Editorial Guidelines phrase it) out to external commercial organisations - an area where sometimes the BBC can find itself with a contradiction. The Graf report into BBC online activities encouraged us to link more frequently, clearly and consistently to external websites, yet obviously one man's link is another man's product placement or commercial disadvantage. For a couple of months now the BBC homepage has been regularly linking to external sites, but for just these reasons tends to, I think rightly, concentrate on linking to non-profit or official organisational sites.

What struck me in both the original Times story and the longer Insight Team piece was a common thread running through the programmes listed as allegedly being involved: Hustle (produced by Kudos), Murphy's Law (produced by Tiger Aspect), Coupling (produced by Hartswood Films), Spooks (produced by Kudos), Hotel Babylon (produced by Carnival Films), The Hairy Driver's Cookbook, produced by Big Bear Films etc etc. Of all the programmes mentioned I could only identify Extras (co-production with HBO) and A Question Of Sport as a BBC in-house production. The rest were commissions from the BBC to an independent producer.

(I'm happy to be corrected on this if someone has available the full list of the "At least 50 cases" which have been identified)

In part of the article it is claimed that:

Over coffee in the Savoy hotel, London, Steve Read, managing director of 1st Place, explained that he could get up to 10 placements of the product on television a month.

Although he places products with films, theatre and ITV, he claimed that 50% of his business was with the BBC.

"The BBC are easier because they are just concerned about making a TV programme and there is no commercial consideration, whereas the ITV guys are worried about upsetting advertisers," he said.

It seemed to me that you could equally argue a different reason that it was 'easier' with productions made for the BBC - that there was a commercial pressure for an independent company to cut costs and increase the profit on a BBC commission by making product placement deals.

Either way the statement that "50% of his business was with the BBC" seems disingenuous at best - maybe 50% of his business gets broadcast on the BBC, but that's not quite the same thing is it?

I must add that this is one of those posts where I feel I need to finish by stressing that I have nothing whatsoever to do with television production, and the views expressed are my own and not those of employer, which is investigating the allegations.

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