An NBC-owned talk show is offering marketers the chance to buy guest spots for their products and executives, further blurring the line between programming and advertising.
The sponsored segments were included in about two dozen shows appearing during the 2001-02 season of the entertainment program "The Other Half," which is owned, produced and distributed by the NBC Enterprises division of NBC, part of General Electric. The show - which is modeled on ABC's "The View," but with male hosts including Dick Clark - has had representatives from advertisers like Clorox, Hyundai Motor America and even Tan Towel, a "self-tanning towelette," appear on the show as part of the regular programming.
During the Clorox-sponsored segment, for example, the hosts, who also include the actors Danny Bonaduce and Mario Lopez, faced off against members of the studio audience in a make-believe game show about housekeeping. And on the segments paid for by Hyundai, a company marketing executive offered tips on buying and leasing cars. A Hyundai vehicle was on stage for each of the four segments and on the final one, which appeared Wednesday, the company gave away a vehicle to the winner of an online sweepstakes.
While the executives were identified as being from Clorox and Hyundai, the hosts made no mention that the visits were part of an advertising arrangement or that the segments were of a different nature than the show's usual fare like "Pajama Streetwear Fashions" and "The After-Sex Wish List."
The sponsored segments were formally identified as such only at the end of each show, when during the closing credits the words "Promotional consideration provided by," followed by the name of the segment sponsor, appeared briefly on screen.
By making these deals an intrinsic part of the business model for "The Other Half," NBC is ratcheting up a trend that disturbs critics who are concerned about the increasing commercialization of popular culture.
"It's very alarming advertisers are allowed to have so much control over the content of programming," said Jeff Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, an advocacy organization.
"G.E. needs to be ashamed that its television division is engaged in such low-ball tactics to grab advertising dollars," he added. "It's time for Congress to move in and hold hearings on the role advertising is playing in shaping content as the audience goes uninformed."
Executives of "The Other Half" are unapologetic about its marketing arrangements. "There's nothing duplicitous about it, nothing being withheld or hidden," said David Brenner, the president of Marathon Ventures and a sales and marketing consultant who is overseeing the sponsored segments for NBC Enterprises. "Most viewers today are pretty savvy about what's going on with television. They know sponsors are using a variety of ways to reach them."
Television networks, advertisers and agencies argue that they must seek nontraditional methods of peddling products because consumers can now easily avoid traditional 30-second commercials by zipping or zapping them with remote controls, VCR's and digital video recorders.
"Everyone is struggling to make the connection between consumers and advertisers," Mr. Brenner said.
"The 30-second commercial is still the gold standard," he added, "but it's an enormous challenge for advertisers to break through the clutter."
Getting the attention of consumers has resulted in a growing list of incursions of advertising into the realm of programming. For instance, the WB network named a reality series, "No Boundaries," after a slogan for vehicles sold by the Ford Motor Company. The writers of the ABC soap opera "All My Children" are featuring Revlon in a three-month story line. Sponsors of the CBS hit series "Survivor" like Mars and Reebok have their merchandise placed in episodes as contestants are seen eating and wearing the products.
Also, Rosie O'Donnell ate a Wendy's salad during an episode of her talk show as part of an an ad deal between Wendy's International and AOL Time Warner. And under terms of an advertising deal between Ford and NBC, musical guests appearing this summer on Friday nights on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" will perform on a stage where Lincoln cars and S.U.V.'s will be parked. The segment will be known as the Lincoln Garage Concert Series.
NBC, which also has a home-shopping network called Shop NBC and sells merchandise on a Web site, says it has no plans to expand the sponsored segments beyond the type talk-show entertainment genre represented by "The Other Half."
Neither NBC Enterprises nor the sponsors would discuss the prices being charged for the sponsored segments on "The Other Half," but it is estimated that the advertisers paid a five-figure sum for each segment.
"We expect to do it more next year," Mr. Brenner said, "and we expect many of the advertisers to be back."
Those marketers rave about their experiences on the show, which appears weekdays on local stations that cover about 78 percent of the country, including 9 of the 10 largest television markets. "It was a great opportunity for us and gave us terrific exposure," said Paul Sellers, director for marketing communication at Hyundai Motor America in Fountain Valley, Calif., a division of the Hyundai Motor Company. "You're going to see more and more of this."
Mr. Sellers estimated that the 18 minutes of air time his company received during the segments cost "one-tenth" what it would if Hyundai had bought the equivalent amount of 30-second commercials.
"The commercial is becoming an endangered species, so if we can get product placement in a program, that's awesome," Mr. Sellers said, adding that his company would "absolutely" consider sponsoring similar segments on "The Other Half" next season.
Mr. Sellers acknowledged that marketers and agencies risk alienating viewers by aggressively expanding the role of advertising in programming, adding: "It's incumbent on us and the producers of the shows to create segments that entertain and engage without being too heavy-handed. These are more readily accepted in a talk-show-type genre than in some traditional prime-time programming."
Mary O'Connell, a spokeswoman for the Clorox Company in Oakland, Calif., said, "We know our consumers; they're busy people bombarded all the time, so we're looking for opportunities where the idea is what can we do to expand outside the realm of the typical 30-second commercial and make the information more fun and engaging."
"You could argue that's blurring the line," Ms. O'Connell said, "but it was set up as talking about cleaning and Clorox." She compared the segment to "an actor coming on a talk show to sell a movie and we see a film clip" along with an interview.
Advertising had been discouraged from crossing the line over to programming for decades, ever since the major broadcast networks retook control of their schedules in the late 1950's and early 1960's. Until then, advertisers and agencies created and provided shows to the networks, whose origins could be seen by titles like "Texaco Star Theater," "Coke Time" and "Schlitz Playhouse of Stars." The stars of many shows like Jack Benny, George Burns, Dinah Shore and Milton Berle even delivered commercials that were woven into the programming.
That ended when the cost of sponsoring a show became too prohibitive for a single company and commercials started to be sold one at a time to a variety of advertisers. But the sponsored-programming model is eliciting renewed interest as the networks wrestle with a steep, prolonged downturn in ad spending by marketers.
"It's an opportunity to generate additional revenue for the show," Mr. Brenner, the consultant to NBC Enterprises, said, "and the effect on the bottom line is material."
"But you won't stay on the air if the audience doesn't find the show entertaining," he added, "and we're very cognizant of not overdoing it."
That sanguine view does not persuade critics. "The networks are betraying their viewers with such blatant commercialization," said Michael Jacobson, executive director in Washington at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy organization.
"It's another good reason for people to turn off the television," he added.
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. May 24, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.