by Jason McCabe Calcanis
[The following is a reprint of an editorial from Jason McCabe Calcanis, editor of the Silicon Alley Reporter. It was previously published in The Silicon Alley Daily on June 15, 1999.]
In the never-ending search to tap digital revenue streams, we've sustained another casualty: the plot. The most anticipated movie of all-time, "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace," was compromised not only by a weak plot, but mostly by Lucas' desire to create merchandisable characters. The two biggest complaints of the movie were, of course, the lack of story line and the over-abundance of computer-generated characters. I'm no expert, but for me the characters make up a huge portion of the story. If Lucas cut out about 80 percent of lines for the computer-generated characters (specifically Jar-Jar and Boss Nass), and gave that time to developing Darth Maul, Obi Wan, and Qui-Gon Jinn, the movie would clearly have been much better.
Lucas has long since sold his soul to the merchandising devil, which he created with the unprecedented mass success of the original trilogy. The sad part is that the devil now wants his due, and it has compromised his vision. Talk to any "Star Wars" aficionado and they will quickly point out that this is not the first time Lucas ruined one of his own movies for the sake of merchandising. The Ewoks in "Return of the Jedi" were supposed to be Wookies. So, instead of having a silly wrestling match between teddy bears and Imperial Storm Troopers, we could have witnessed an army of Wookies kicking major Imperial butt. Perhaps Lucas should have changed that in the updated versions! Product placement has existed for a long time, but having someone drinking a Budweiser versus a Heineken is a lot different than changing characters so they are cuter or more marketable.
I started thinking about all of this when I read about CBS creating a story line for the "Guiding Light" soap opera in which one of the characters will receive a special bracelet from another character. That bracelet is also available for purchase online at CBS.com.
The most disturbing part of the story was a quote from Lucy Johnson of CBS: "With Internet commerce growing at an incredible pace, this initial venture affords us the opportunity to test this new marketing arena and its untapped revenue stream which offers tremendous potential for growth in the months and years ahead."
Ms. Johnson, there is a reason why this is an untapped revenue stream: consumers don't want to watch infomercials (at least not all the time). Consumers want the straight dope. Just give us the artist's vision, and save the marketing opportunities for the periods between the content (they are called commercials).
The issue is embedded e-commerce, and the debate will explode when clickable video hits your TV set at some point over the next 36 months (if it hasn't already). At some point Courtney Cox will be wearing a red dress on "Friends," and you'll be able to click on it and go to the Prada store. CBS's bracelet is just the tip of the iceberg. Networks are desperate to find revenues in an age when they are overpaying for content and losing viewers to cable and the Net. Don't be surprised if DKNY, Tommy Hilfiger or Ikea start underwriting shows in the near future. A little note could run across the screen "For more information on any of the affordable IKEA furniture in 'Friends,' click on any item!"
If you do click on Courtney Cox's dress, who gets that money? NBC? The local affiliate? The producers of "Friends?" Or maybe Courtney Cox will get a piece of the action? The bottom line for me is that we are diving headfirst down a slippery slope right now. Get ready for a mudslide, and send PBS a check because it will be the only TV content producer with the ethics not to embrace embedded e-commerce.
The product-placement parody injected into everything associated with "Austin Powers" is funny because it is so over the top. Imagine how annoying it would be if you had to sit through it every day?
[Jason McCabe Calcanis edits the Silicon Alley Reporter whose parent company RTS will be hosting http://www.digitalcoast99.com in September