Thursday night’s “Community” had a very unusual, highly visible guest-star in its midst: A Subway sandwich shop.
It amounted to one of the most conspicuous “product placements” seen yet on prime-time TV — a sponsor within the show that not only occupied a central location on one of the show’s sets, but it was the central “character” in the episode’s principal plotline too.
On the show seen on NBC, a Subway sandwich shop turned up on the Greendale Community College campus — installed, complete with huge “Subway” signage, in the cafeteria of the Greendale student center.
The arrival of a Subway franchise thwarted a plan being developed by Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) and Pierce (Chevy Chase) to establish their own foodstand in the space.
As a result, the two conspired in Thursday’s episode to undermine Subway and its cheerful proprietor/manager, a man who changed his name legally to “Subway.” Thus, Subway — the sponsor — had a very noticeable presence on the show (to say the least), which included the use, within the script, of the two-word Subway slogan “Eat Fresh.”
Subway is a big practitioner of these in-show sponsorships, which go farther in establishing a sponsor’s presence within a show than ordinary product placements, in which a set is dressed with various consumer goods glimpsed on tabletops, lunch counters or in kitchen cabinets and opened refrigerators. Among the shows where Subway has made its presence known: “Hawaii Five-0” (in a January episode) on CBS, and on NBC’s “Chuck” (since cancelled).
As always with these sponsorship placement schemes, the key question is whether they repel viewership. On the #Community Twitter page, an unscientific assessment of many of the Tweets there indicate that this show’s fans (who are notoriously supportive of this show) were not put off by the presence of this sponsor within the show.
In fact, the majority of them — the ones who even bothered commenting on the Subway presence at all — seemed to enjoy the comedic storyline that had been written for the sponsor. In addition, a quick survey of some critics’ blog posts and recaps of this episode of “Community” found a kind of begrudging acceptance of this kind of intrusion into the body of a show.
The consensus seemed to be that this kind of ploy is the price of doing business these days in the TV business, in which networks have to be ever more creative in what they will offer their advertisers, in order to keep a relatively low-rated series such as “Community” on the air.
“Product placement has come to ‘Community’,” wrote a critic on Slate.com here. “And it hits with the force of a one-ton box of pre-measured 1.6 ounce servings of stringy roast beef. . . . We shouldn’t be surprised when we see it. In this wonderful and evolving Netflix ‘n’ Tivo ‘n’ Xbox world, we sometimes forget how much viewership has dropped for many network TV shows. . . . Shows just can’t make the big bucks they used to.”
Truth is, more of the “Community” Tweets dealt with another plotline on Thursday’s “Community” concerning a growing rift between nerd pals Abed (Danny Pudi) and Troy (Donald Glover) over their competing pillow and blanket forts (respectively). What’s that all about? Watch the episode, above, and you’ll find out.
For the record: 3.626 million people watched “Community” on Thursday night, according to the Nielsen overnights — down slightly from 3.87 million a week earlier.
“Community” airs Thursday nights at 8/7c on NBC.