In 2000 Hartswood Films created Coupling for BBC TV. Coupling was the British answer to Friends. However, being British, the entire four series run was written by a single writer (Steven Moffat) as opposed to the 44 writer-strong team who wrote Friends.
Furthermore, the whole series was developed and cast by Steven in his kitchen as he revealed in "Imagine: A Funny Business" a BBC documentary about how British sitcoms transfer across the Atlantic. Moffat and his Producer Sue Vertue had a small casting for the benefit of BBC staffers, but it was mostly because they felt obliged to, and they cast their original choices anyway.
So, when Coupling was remade in the States, Moffat was amazed to find that the casting was not only attended by NBC Executives, but by "potential advertisers". Suitability for the roles was irrelevant it seemed, the broadcaster was more interested in making sure that the cast pleased Unilever and Coca Cola. In 2003 this story made me wince.
But first, let's not kid ourselves that advertisers getting involved in the creative process is new. In the 1930's US radio series "Fibber McGee and Molly", one of the characters was an SC Johnson Wax salesman whose dialogue often included extolling the virtues of his products.
Well, "The Starter Wife" is "presented by Pond's" as all of the advertising "boasts". And, being a programme about fortysomething woman getting dumped by her husband, it affords many opportunities to tackle "ageing" issues that Pond's will happily sell the audience products for. And by the way, Messing is only 38. Heaven forbid we have a 40+ year old woman on television...
And, Pond's involvement goes WAY beyond simple advertising, sponsorship or product placement. In exchange for funding (thirty pieces of silver?) Pond's was allowed to have its marketing people sitting in the scriptwriting sessions. Making "suggestions".
"We wanted to make sure [Debra Messing's character] would go through an evolution that would make her a Pond's woman," says Doug Scott, executive director of branded content and entertainment for Ogilvy North America.
Read more about this in Slate Magazine. And the next time you think that "Branded Entertainment" is a good idea, watch this new Orange Film Funding Board and realise that it's not a joke - it's real.