How 30 Rock Might Be Destroying Television

Tina Fey's 30 Rock is perhaps the most critically-acclaimed show on network television (and about network television), an arch meta-comedy about the production of a fake sketch comedy. But maybe the show's writers are too good at their jobs — and too willing to please NBC executives on whose whims the ratings-challenged comedy will live or die. New York talked to a variety of industry players about the clever way 30 Rock integrates paid product placements from the likes of Verizon, Snapple and women's beverage SoyJoy. Some, like Oz creator Tom Fontana and film-producer-turned ad man Charles Rosen think the show handled the product insertions in such a brilliant, self-mocking fashion that it lit the way for other shows to so likewise. Joss Whedon, the beloved creator of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, said that may be precisely the problem. He took particular umbrage at miniature episodes 30 Rock ran inside American Express ads:

I tell him about the SoyJoy deal. He’s troubled; he hadn’t realized that was an integration. (He also hadn’t realized it was a real brand.) But it’s the American Express podbusters that really set him off. “My wife and I get very angry. We invest in the reality of the show! And this is one of the ways they’re picking apart the idea of the narrative, keeping you from knowing if it’s a show or not.”

"...[TV executives] want to take the story apart so they can stuff it with as much revenue as they can. And ultimately what you get is a zombie, a stuffed thing—a non-show.”

...Television is a mass art, requiring compromise, pragmatism, he knows—but the line creators draw should not be about “How coolly can I do this? The most artful can be the most unethical.”

Whedon has a point, particularly when he says, elsewhere in the article, that shows like 30 Rock can only be clever about product placement — cheekily and gently mocking it — once or twice before the joke becomes stale and they have to resort to more cheesy, straight-up placements. Eventually, viewers will feel like the show is stooping. But that's easy for Whedon to say — he already has his fame and fortune. 30 Rock is still fighting for survival and most people will allow it just a little bit of selling out. They'd expect no less of Liz Lemon, in fact!