How to Watch Television

By Ethan Thompson; Jason Mittell | Go to book overview

27
Modern Family

Product Placement

KEVIN SANDLER

Abstract: Although television is overwhelmingly a commercial medium, audiences
still expect boundaries between commercials and program content, particularly
in narrative programming. Kevin Sandler examines an interesting case of product
integration: the controversy that surrounded an episode of the hit sitcom Modern
Family
, the narrative of which conspicuously centered on Apple’s iPad just days be-
fore that device became available for purchase.

“Game Changer,” a first season episode of ABC’s Modern Family (2009–present), begins with Phil Dunphy all set to wake up early the next day—his birthday—and get in line at 6 a.m. at the Apple Store to buy an iPad. “It’s like Steve Jobs and God got together to make this the best birthday ever!” he says. His wife Claire, thrilled to have a handle on what her husband Phil actually wants for his birthday (her previous idea was light-up barbecue tongs), offers to camp out at the Apple store to get him the iPad. Alas, she falls asleep on the couch, and the iPad is sold out before she arrives. Claire subsequently enlists her two daughters, Haley and Alex, to “Facebook, chat, buzz, bling” their way to an “iPad thingy.” In the meantime, Claire hears about a new shipment of iPads at the Apple Store, only to get thrown out of line with her brother Mitchell (who retrieved her wallet from home) for fighting with a man who cut in front of them. Ultimately, though, Phil’s son Luke obtains an iPad by emailing all of his father’s “geek friends,” claiming that Phil is dying and his final wish is to get an iPad. The episode concludes with Phil getting his iPad and celebrating his birthday with his family. Happy ending achieved, narrative equilibrium restored.

Prior to the airing of “Game Changer” (March 31, 2010), Modern Family had received nearly universal acclaim from critics and fans since its debut in September 2009. The show was the highest-rated new comedy of the broadcast season, and eventually won the Emmy Award for Best Comedy Series later that August. By its second season, Modern Family had become the most watched scripted

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