Digital technology may be used for the first time to place "virtual" products and other advertising images regularly in scenes of a syndicated television series to be watched by American audiences.
Viewers of reruns of the crime drama "Law and Order," which is moving to the TNT cable network as of June 5, could see sponsored imagery interpolated where it had not been before as a result of an agreement in principle to allow the insertion of computer-generated make-believe items like cans, bottles, signs and logos into scenes.
Under the agreement, the virtual placements would be made if and when advertisers decide to pay for them. Those payments would be separate from what advertisers pay to run spots during commercial breaks. The process of selling the virtual ads has not begun, so there is no list of participating companies yet, and there is no guarantee that there will be any if marketers decide not to buy such ads.
Also, two companies involved in the syndication of the "Law and Order" reruns said late yesterday that contrary to a report this week in the trade publication Advertising Age - which was confirmed by two other parties to the agreement - they had not authorized the placements of the virtual ads, potentially clouding the deal.
Whatever the outcome, this could be the start of the potential removal of another brick in the wall between sponsored and unsponsored content amid the increasing commercialization of the entertainment culture, as evidenced by the return of product placements in TV programs like the two installments of the hit />CBS series "Survivor" and the coming ABC series "The Runner."
What's spurring this? Marketers are striving to find nontraditional ways to reach consumers who are becoming increasingly resistant to standard methods of pitching products, like commercials, that interrupt TV shows, which can be zapped, fast-forwarded or edited out as they appear or reappear.
The virtual placement process, known as the live-video insertion system, has been tested during a prime- time entertainment program, when on March 17, 1999, electronic product images for Coca-Cola, Kenneth Cole, Evian and Wells Fargo were inserted briefly in the backgrounds of scenes on "Seven Days," a series on the UPN network. That was a one- time test and was not repeated.
Sponsored imagery has also been inserted into scenes in syndicated reruns in countries like Mexico, but not the United States, though in this country the technology is often used to add virtual logos and signs to arenas, stadiums and ballparks during broadcasts of sports events.
"We're always looking at ways to leverage our viewer relationships for marketers, in an appropriate manner," said Mark Harrad, a spokesman in New York for the Turner Broadcasting System division of AOL Time Warner, the parent of TNT. He was one of two executives who confirmed the report in Advertising Age, which suggested that virtual ads on "Law and Order" could include a branded soda machine in a police station, products on the desks of characters or a branded coffee cup in a detective's hands.
Critics complain there is no appropriate manner of inserting digital ad images into a TV show because it blurs the line that ought to separate editorial content from paid peddling.
"It's all part of the same thing, potentially manipulating audiences" through "potentially deceptive marketing practices," said Jeff Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, an advocacy organization that works on new-media policy issues.
Mr. Chester said he would ask the Federal Communications Commission to "examine this as to its impact" and whether viewers ought to be notified of the existence of virtual ads under the commission's existing "safeguards about sponsor identification and overcommercialization."
Another party to the agreement along with Turner Broadcasting is Princeton Video Image, which developed the virtual product-placement technology to be used to insert the imaginary items.
"We're going to be doing it on a controlled test basis, to get the logistics down and make sure it can be done organically and seamlessly," said Paul Slagle, vice president for sales and marketing at the New York office of Princeton Video, which is based in Lawrenceville, N.J.
"We've all agreed going forward it's only a bad idea if we do it in a nonorganic way," he added, that viewers would deem intrusive and therefore annoy them.
Decisions on interpolating virtual product placements will be made, Mr. Slagle said, after reviewing the filmed episodes of "Law and Order," which will appear on TNT after running on NBC and rerunning on the A&E cable network.
"There may be several opportunities in one show, and none in another," Mr. Slagle said. "We want to do it only where it's appropriate and benefits the advertiser and the producer and doesn't take away from the creative process."
"Law and Order" is produced by Studios USA - a division of USA Networks, owned in part by Vivendi Universal - along with Dick Wolf of Wolf Films. The series is to appear twice a night on TNT as original episodes continue for the 2001-2002 season on NBC along with original episodes of two spin-offs, "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit" and "Law and Order: Criminal Intent."
Mr. Wolf, in a statement made yesterday through a spokeswoman, Pam Golum, seemed to cast a shadow on the agreement.
"Those rights" to the "Law and Order" reruns, he said, "are held mutually by Studios USA and Wolf Films; as far as I know, the rights have not been granted to any third party."
Jim Benson, a spokesman in Los Angeles for Studios USA Domestic Television, the Studios USA unit that handles series syndication, said in a separate telephone interview: "We're among the rights holders. We have not authorized any deal. There is no deal. There can't be a deal without us."
Asked to respond to those comments and the Wolf statement, Mr. Slagle - who was joined on the telephone by Mr. Harrad - said: "There is an agreement to move forward on this. There is not a signed-on-the- dotted-line agreement on terms."
For instance, Turner Broadcasting is still developing its sales strategy for the virtual ads, including how they will be priced and whether to sell them during the "upfront" market when traditional commercial time is sold to advertisers before the fall season begins.
Princeton Video has tried for several years to find a syndicator that would agree to virtual product placements in reruns of series. A deal in 1999 with a unit of what was then Time Warner, which syndicates reruns of shows like "The Drew Carey Show" and "Friends," fell through.
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. May 23, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.