In September, culture secretary Ben Bradshaw caused excitement among those of us involved in broadcast PR over the prospect of placing our clients' products in the content of programming on UK TV. And as Ofcom goes through consultation, the general consensus is that this will proceed into legislation.
I doubt the UK will ever reach the levels seen on US shows such as American Idol, where there have been thousands of product placements, including blatantly placed glasses of 'soft drink with vegetable extracts' (sorry, but I haven't been paid to place the brand in this article) that appear on the judges' desks. However, there is no doubt this is an exciting opportunity for brands and is long overdue.
So, with branded traditional TV content almost upon us, it could have been regarded as one step forward and two back when, in the same week, Ofcom published its first proposed piece of legislation regulating video-on-demand (VoD). The proposed changes - if they survive through the consultation - mean viewers will be able to complain to a new body (likely to be the Association for Television on Demand) from December if they feel they have been misled by watching a piece of video footage.
The critical issues are whether the film seems editorially balanced and that it flags up a sponsor if there is one.
Regulation can feel restricting, but in this case the news is only good for PR people, who are in the best position to be able to advise on the creation of content that is entertaining and interesting for the viewer while also fulfilling commercial objectives.
Until now, Ofcom has not regulated the internet. This means a brand can create its own online TV show, featuring only its own products, with only its own spokespeople, and discuss its own agenda. But exploiting the lack of Ofcom regulation too far can have an adverse effect on a brand. If video content is produced for the purpose of PR coverage but is not editorially balanced, few editors of third-party websites would want to carry it. Besides which, as consumers we are very media savvy and most of us know when we are being marketed to. So, if video content is positioned as editorial but is overtly commercial, chances are we will turn it off anyway.
But there is no doubt online video is worth the effort. According to Comscore, almost 30 million UK internet users aged 15 years and over watched 4.7 billion videos during April this year. My own experience of live and interactive web TV shows produced at markettiers4dc demonstrates there is a growing audience of viewers who want to engage with branded content, as long as it is entertaining, educational or informative. Laphroaig Whisky, which first ventured into live web TV with us and won the PR Week Award for Best Live Event last year, has continued to embrace the concept by producing further live and interactive online shows from the Isle of Islay off Scotland and, just recently, from Kentucky in the US.
It broadcasts these from its own site as well as aggregating them to targeted online media owners. Its loyal 'Friends of Laphroaig' buy into the concept because the shows are professionally produced, but crucially, while clearly sponsored by the brand, are editorially balanced in a style you would expect when watching TV.
So, while some people may be concerned about the impact that Ofcom's regulations may have on VoD, I see this as a huge opportunity for the PR industry to take ownership of this aspect of the communications mix. After all, PR already has the skills set to produce editorially balanced content, having had to work within Ofcom's regulations in traditional broadcast PR, and so should be leading the charge in producing branded video content for 2010 and beyond.
- Russell Goldsmith is digital media director at markettiers4DC.