“I don’t know karate—but I know ka-razy” –James Brown
For the past eight years, I’ve been making a television show called NO RESERVATIONS. I wrote it. I executive produced it. And I appeared in it. My partners and I always tried hard to make it good.
During that time, I understood the way the world works. Television programs are paid for by television networks—who make their money selling advertising. And it would be ridiculous to hope or expect that I could ever have control over who buys commercial time in the breaks between segments. But my name and image are my own. My name, arguably, might not mean that much—and my face may not be pretty, but they’re mine.
In the brave new world we live in these days, fewer and fewer people watch their favorite television programs in their scheduled time periods. They DVR them, they record them, they download them on-line. People tend, under such circumstances, to skip—or speed through—commercials. For this reason, there’s pressure from networks to “integrate” products into the body of the actual shows whenever possible: to slip images of brands right into the action, or to transitions into commercials in such a way as to make the viewer think that it’s still the show they’re watching.
I’m aware of these pressures and have been, as a result, very very careful about resisting them. A while back, I agreed to use a credit card on a limited number of episodes of my show. The network made money off the deal. It helped assure me and my production company the budget we wanted. And I got paid. My fans were not pleased, however. Not at all. The backlash was considerable and angry. People felt betrayed. As a result, I became even more careful and even more reluctant to do them.
Fortunately, I had made sure, in my agreement with Travel Channel, to include very specific language about this kind of thing. We had both agreed to terms where my name or image was never to be used to either endorse, or imply use of a product without my specific agreement. It was clearly expressed in writing, clearly understood and agreed to that I would not use or mention any products in my show and my name and image would not be used in connection with any products in return for anything of value or any other consideration without my specific agreement.
My inclination, I should point out has always been to do NO product integration of ANY kind. I do not have a merchandise line. I don’t sell knives or apparel. Though I have been approached to endorse various products from liquor to airlines to automobiles to pharmaceuticals dozens of times, I have managed to resist the temptation. Though not quite a virgin, I have tried to remain fairly pure. To the extent I am known, I think I am known as a person who expresses his opinion freely about things—and I was sensitive to the possibility that if I was seen taking money for saying nice things about a product, my comments and choices and opinions would become, understandably, suspect. Did I really like this particular beer I was seen drinking on the show? Or had I simply been paid to say so?
As described above, I took money from a credit card company once. Never to be repeated. And I drove a BMW once—for which I got the car that I drive today. That’s it. Any other brand—of beer, cars, whatever—that you saw me use on the show—I used because that was what I liked and thought appropriate or fun for the circumstances or setting at hand—or simply because they were what was available.
I like to think I’m a man of my word. If I tell you I’m going to meet you tomorrow at a movie theater to see a film at twelve o’ clock, I will be there. And I’ll be there early. I will expect the same of you. If I make an agreement—especially about something as personal as the use of my name and image, I expect that agreement will be honored. So it came as a shock and a disappointment to turn on the TV for the last two episodes of my show, and see that someone had taken footage that me and my creative team had shot for my show, cut it up and edited it together with scenes of a new Cadillac driving through the forest. Scenes of me, my face, and with my voice, were edited in such a way as to suggest that I might be driving that Cadillac. That, at least, I was very likely IN that Cadillac—and that if nothing else, I sure as shit was endorsing Cadillac as the vehicle of choice for my show. All this following seamlessly from the actual show so you were halfway through the damn thing before you even realized it was a commercial.
The network made a commercial, with me endorsing a product, and hadn’t even bothered to ask me. After the first airing of the commercial, I let the network know of my extreme displeasure. Fair warning one would think. They ran it again anyway.
I have no problem with Cadillac, by the way. A couple of people have come up to me after reading my enraged twitter rants on this subject and asked me what my problem is with them. No problem. With them.
I have had a long and mostly very happy relationship with Travel Channel over the last eight years. For almost all of that time, they were incredibly supportive of what me and my partners were doing—and of me personally. A number of different owners, a number of different administrations came and went. But in the last year or so things started to take a definite turn for the worse. There was the news that, unbeknownst to me, the network had decided to add THREE “special episodes “ comprised entirely of clips from previous shows to the final bunch of only seven. Had we not agreed to edit them ourselves, they were well on their way to doing the shows without our participation. Best I can tell, they are, unfortunately, well within their contractual rights to butcher our painstakingly shot and edited footage as they choose. It’s something of a creative signature of the new guard at Travel, best I can tell—to cynically and cheaply “repurpose” existing material to create additional “content”. In such circumstances, as some of my on air colleagues agree, no one wins. Presenters look exploitative and lazy. Fans feel used and misled. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can do about that.
But I CAN do something when my name and image (such as they are) are used to sell a product without my consent and in violation of prior specific and well crafted legal agreements. And I intend to.
It’s an inglorious way to go out—after 8 seasons of television programs of which I—and all the people who worked on them—are very proud. I miss the happy times at Travel, the first Big Cheese there, a Mr. Pat Younge, in particular, who really took a lot of chances on us. Who believed in us, understood us, appreciated the work we did and how much it meant to us. Who understood that keeping faith with our fans in the long run meant something more than short term profit.
I apologize to the guys on the production line at Cadillac, for finding the thing YOU make, and I have no doubt, are very proud of, in the middle of a rancorous disagreement.
I was—and remain—angry.
While this would seem to be a problem most people wouldn’t mind having; I can only ask how you’d feel if somebody was out there using your name for purposes of their own—without your knowledge. If they presented you as someone you are not, as holding opinions you don’t hold, and making money off those misrepresentations—however embarrassing to you.
All of us on the show would have preferred to go out on a high note—and we tried to do that as best we could, turning in a strong, final season that we are very proud of. We wanted to go leaving a lot of great shows—and nothing but good memories and good will behind.
But things just didn’t turn out that way.