After last Thursday's "30 Rock," a flurry of controversy arose over the episode's major and relentless plugging of a McDonald's product. (Yeah, OK, the product was the McFlurry, although I hate to contribute to all the promo.) Anyway, Tina Fey promptly denied that the plug was paid for, in the way "Saturday Night Live" was paid to promote Pepsi in the MacGruber skits a few weeks ago.
I found the denial hard to believe, despite Fey's clear statement in New York magazine: "It gives me great pleasure to inform you that the references to McDonald's in last night's episode of '30 Rock' were in no way product placement. (Nor were they an attempt at product placement that fell through.) ... We were actually a little worried they might sue us."
"30 Rock" has boldly incorporated products into scripts for money for years now, and I couldn't imagine why the show would suddenly do it for free. In fact, when I was watching the McFlurry business on "30 Rock," I thought the blatantness was part of the joke. The "30 Rock" writers have consistently managed to commercialize their scripts and make their scripts about the commercialization of TV at the same time. (Check these classics.) Why would the denial give Fey "great pleasure," after she has been so open to -- and so funny about -- product placement in the past?
And then, this weekend on "Saturday Night Live," there was yet another McFlurry plug. In the Cougar's Den skit, Kristen Wiig talks about hanging around a McDonald's Playplace and buying a kid a McFlurry. Here's the skit -- the reference is 4 minutes in:
Come on NBC! This is just too coincidental for me, especially since this weekend's entire "Saturday Night Live" -- with Alec Baldwin and Jack McBrayer -- was such a "30 Rock" fest. Maybe NBC is just trying to seduce McDonald's, and Fey was telling the truth -- I don't know.
I long ago stopped whining about the tricky ways that product placement is now wound into scripted TV storylines -- because it's so rampant (on "Desperate Housewives" in particular), not because it doesn't still concern me. But at least let's not pretend that scripts aren't up for sale, that the division between church and state is not extremely porous.
What do you think of building scripts around products for money? Is this a TV survival mechanism in the DVR era, or a sellout?