How Some 21st Century Shows Are Better at 21st Century Tech

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When The Atlantic Wire took a look at shows we thought portrayed 21st Century tech in a very 21st Century manner, we explained the phenomenon in terms of literary value and practicality, but there's another factor at play here: Advertising. It's not all about setting the scene, symbolism or commentary, as Bloomberg BusinessWeek's Peter Burrows and Andy Fixmer point out. There's money at stake here -- technology often comes in the form of a product, which means a company might have paid for that gadget to appear on TV. What makes a show most authentic, it seems, is that it cares more about its own reality than about brand-agreements.

It sounds absurd from a business perspective, but some shows do, in fact, care more about having a genuine feel than making money off product placement ads. One such program is one we also singled out in our round-up of tv that does tech right: Modern Family. "Executive producer Steve Levitan has on multiple occasions nixed eight-figure product placement deals that don’t feel true to the plot," an anonymous branding expert told Burrows and Fixmer. The show often has entire plot-lines structured around our modern gadgets and it always feels just right, as we discussed in more detail earlier this week. Now we know why. Levitan thinks beyond the product. He told AdAge's Brian Steinberg that he turns down 90 percent of product placement requests. In fact, that entire episode about Phil's iPad, was done without any money from Apple, as Apple doesn't pay for its produce placements, according to Burrows and Fixmer. When creators write something like that into a plot, it feels more natural than an awkward, in your face brand-name thing in the middle of a scene, which often happens with product deals.

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Considering Apple doesn't outright pay for its integration, we assume the creators of Girls have the same dedication to authenticity. (Though, the company does offer some perks, "Apple won’t pay to have their products featured, but they are more than willing to hand out an endless amount of computers, iPads, and iPhones," Curb Your Enthusiasm producer Gavin Polone told Burrows and Fixmer.) Hannah uses an iPhone, which is prominently featured in the opening scene of the most recent episode, which begins with the familiar sound of an incoming text message on an Apple phone. Hannah also uses MacBook laptop. That feels right, she's a hip 20-something writer living in Brooklyn. If she used anything else, HBO might make more money, but it would feel very, very wrong -- unless we got some sort of joke about her neo-hipsterism. The same goes for 30 Rock, a show we did not mention in our round-up, but has featured a lot of Siri and Apple related jokes. Just last night Tracy Jordan had a conversation with Siri, in which he asked the bot to bring Jessica Tandy back to life. (Siri's response: "Tracy, Jessica Tandy's Zombie is coming to find you.") The Glee kids have been seen with iPhones and Mac laptops, too. 

Of course these shows are getting something out of it (free phones!), but they could be getting actual money from other companies. Shows that take this tactic, however, lose out. Gossip Girl, a show we did not single out for its use of tech (and not just because it's kind of embarrassing to watch), didn't show any of its characters using iPhones due to a contract with Verizon, explain Burrows and Fixmer. "For most of Gossip Girl’s first four seasons, none of the hit show’s glamorous teens carried the most talked-about smartphone of the last five years," they write. Even back in 2008, the actors behind the main characters were split iPhone and BlackBerry users. And it would have furthered that uptown v. downtown thing the show had going on to give its hip lower Manhattan characters with iPhones. But, Gossip Girl went for the brand deal instead of something more in keeping with its own reality. 

Perhaps as a nod to Hollywood, there's a lot of integration happening that serves to make the show more genuine, rather than an awkward obvious in-show ad. Apple products were in more than 40 percent of top movies last year. And were discussed or flashed on TV shows 891 times in 2011, up from 613 in 2009 -- all of that inspired by costume design and props, rather than advertising. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.