Did ABC Sell Out 'Modern Family' for iPad Hype?

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On Wednesday, ABC's Modern Family drew the ire of critics and fans alike when it jumped on the iPad bandwagon with an episode featuring character Phil Dunphy desperately trying to get his hands on one of the gadgets. After his wife gets to the Apple store too late to buy one, Dunphy has a meltdown. While he contemplates the misery of waiting a whole week for his iPad, his family scrambles to pick one up for him. Ultimately, he manages to acquire one and the episode ends with him declaring his love for the tablet in a sequence that borders on the disturbing.

ABC (DIS), which didn't respond to a request for comment on this article, may have made a misstep. Many watchers saw the episode as a big, creepy demonstration of product placement gone wild. Over the last few years, as television programs have scrambled for advertisers, this has become an increasing problem. With creative freedom seeming more and more like a quaint memory, it often becomes hard to see where the commercials end and the programs begin. Less than two weeks ago, a similar brouhaha erupted over the March 22 episode of Chuck, NBC's comedy about an unlikely spy, in which several warring characters bury the hatchet at a Subway Restaurant, symbolically sealing their friendship over a particularly grotesque sandwich. While many fans have previously grumbled about the heavy-handed Subway placement on the series, this episode drew particular displeasure.

In the case of Chuck, many viewers and critics give the show a pass for its pandering; after all, the spy series was on its way to the trash pile last season before Subway stepped in and saved it. But in the case of Modern Family, Apple didn't pay a penny. Apparently, the show's executive producers, Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan, gave the massive product placement away for free. In fact, Apple's (AAPL) contribution -- at least according to Modern Family's credits -- was limited to a few iPads that it loaned out as props.

While critics have piled on ABC for its apparent decision to shill for Apple, a case could also be made that the iPad plot simply grounds Modern Family in contemporary culture. After all, headlines about the iPad release have filled the news, and scores of Apple techno-junkies are planning to queue up to get the gadget before it sells out. Given the rabid fervor surrounding the iPad release and the fact that the evergreen Mac/PC battle still has cultural relevance, it isn't hard to see why Lloyd and Levitan may have wanted to turn the must-have gewgaw into a major plot point.

Then again, it probably doesn't hurt that ABC and Apple seem to have formed a pretty comfortable collaboration over the iPad. After all, the network is already trumpeting the release of "ABC Player for the iPad," an application that will enable users to stream video from ABC for free. This, incidentally, is not a universal decision: for example, NBC has chosen to forgo an iPad app; instead, the Peacock Network is planning to sell its episodes through iTunes, charging users $1.99 per show.

I guess The Office's Jim and Pam won't be following up their tragic iPod Christmas episode with an iPad exchange.


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