The constantly blurring line between programming and advertising on television may get even wavier as at least one network considers an idea to sell to marketers the ability to superimpose small transparent logos, brand names and other commercial trappings in a corner of the screen.
The space that could possibly become additional turf for paid product advertising is now filled by many broadcast and cable networks with their own logos, reminding viewers where they are tuned, often along with brief, miniature promotions for coming shows and series. Tiny translucent versions of symbols like the ABC dot, the CBS eye, the NBC peacock, the TNT circle, the shields of the History Channel and WB and the PBS "P-Man" - known as "bugs" in the TV industry - have become familiar sights in recent years as they hover seemingly wraithlike over and throughout the programs being presented.
No national network or local station in this country has regularly run such digital ectoplasmic advertisements in that space on behalf of outside sponsors, as far as can be determined. The New York Post reported this week that UPN, part of the media conglomerate Viacom, is considering proposing to advertisers and agencies that they could do so during UPN prime-time series as a bonus for buying large blocks of time to run traditional commercials during regular breaks.
There is something of a precedent in the appearance of tiny advertiser logos on screen. They appear now on several regional and national sports networks during coverage of soccer matches as well as baseball, basketball, football and hockey games, as scores are being shown.
And ad bugs could be deemed not unlike the placement for a fee of branded products in the background of scenes in shows, which is a longtime practice that has become more popular lately with the rise of so-called reality programming. For instance, contestants who win immunity challenges on the hit CBS series "Survivor" are typically rewarded with sponsors' products, which are displayed and cooed over on screen like presents under the tree at the orphanage on Christmas morning.
Still, the idea of ad bugs raises a thorny issue that has recently preoccupied Madison Avenue, marketers and the media as the sluggish economy dampens demand for commercial time: How much is too much when it comes to peddling products as consumers grow increasingly tired of - and are more easily able to avoid - conventional TV spots?
Ad bugs would be "shockingly crude and inappropriate," said Scott Lerman, president at Enterprise IG in New York, a brand and corporate identity consulting company that is part of the giant WPP Group agency company.
Mr. Lerman likened potential ad bugs to "debris" and called the consideration of the idea "a sign of desperation."
Though the ad world grows "more crowded," he added, "people are going to get angry" if they actually appeared "because they'd be considered an imposition."
That derogatory view is, however, not universally shared.
The idea of ad bugs is "something we would look at" if it was presented by a TV network, said Rich Hamilton, chief executive for the North American operations at Zenith Media in New York, an agency that specializes in buying commercial time and ad space for marketers.
"History has shown that when consumers are exposed to advertising in places where advertising has not been in the past, they initially react negatively - then accept it," he added, giving as an example commercials that run before films in movie theaters.
"Will it happen? Will it be a success? I can't say for sure," Mr. Hamilton said of the ad bugs. "If the Nike `swoosh' or the Toyota logo or the McDonald's arches appeared on the bottom corner of the screen during a UPN program, there would probably be a reaction from some consumers. But most times, those reactions pass."
What would be most important in determining whether ad bugs will appear, he added, is "what value is there" for marketers as they balance the desire to introduce commercial messages "in all kinds of different places" against the potential irksomeness of the idea. Zenith is owned by the Cordiant Communications Group and the Publicis Groupe.
There is apparently no regulation that would prohibit ad bugs during prime-time programs, said David Fiske, a spokesman for the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, because the government has "no limits on TV commercials" other than during children's programming.
The prevailing policy, he added, is that it is "a market decision how much commercialism is too much commercialism."
Whether ad bugs are embraced or declared excessive is to be determined by executives at UPN, which is best-known for wrestling programs and "Star Trek" sequel series and has high hopes for the 2001-02 season after wooing a popular show, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" from WB. For some wrestling shows, two bugs appear on screen at once: the UPN logo in one corner and that of the World Wrestling Federation in the other.
"I don't think the viewer would welcome replacing our bug for some period of time" with an advertiser's logo, said Adam Ware, chief operating officer at UPN in Los Angeles, "and I don't think the producers of our shows would welcome it."
"At the end of the day, it's not in our best interest to end up" having the screen of a UPN viewer look "like the inside of a hockey rink," he added.
That said, Mr. Ware qualified his remarks somewhat. He said the ad bug was "not something I'm exploring in the form you're talking about it," that is, by "taking our logo and replacing it with an advertising logo."
"If that's all you did, it would be intrusive," Mr. Ware said. "If you were to figure out a creative way of incorporating an advertiser message, that would probably be a better way to go."
"In a healthy market, or a very competitive market, you need to constantly review how you're selling your time," he added. "The business has evolved and there are more ways to communicate your message, and you have to start evolving with that."
UPN executives have been "figuring out doing different creative things," Mr. Ware said, and as part of those plans are working with Endeavor Marketing Solutions, part of the Endeavor talent agency, "talking to advertisers, talking to agencies, about a whole host of ideas." He declined to elaborate because, he said, "some are closed, but not ready for announcement."
Another executive who buys commercial time at a media agency said he believed the ad bug could appear on a network, if it began on screen as a marketer's logo and then, rather than appearing as an ad logo for an extended period, morphed into the standard network-identification logo.
"I look at it on two levels," said the executive, Andrew Donchin, director for national broadcast at Carat USA in New York, part of the Carat International division of the Aegis Group.
"As a buyer, I'd like to see the proposal and do an analysis," he explained. "As a viewer, sitting on the couch with my feet up, I'd be a little bothered by it as too intrusive."
At WB, which is considered to be the broadcast network that most directly competes against UPN, Jed Petrick, president and chief operating officer in Burbank, Calif., said ad bugs are "not something we've ever thought of doing."
"We're always looking for different ways to give advertisers the opportunity to connect and engage with consumers," he added, "if they'll enhance the viewing experience."
"Without a viewer," he added, "you don't have much to give an advertiser."
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. August 23, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.