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Brands Taking Place in Spotlight

It's a scene familiar from countless home-improvement shows: An aging property stands ready for a radical redesign. A diverse team must put in a new addition with limited funds and resources.

But what could be a segment on such new home-improvement shows as TBS Superstation's "House Rules" or USA Network's "House Wars" is playing out in actuality behind the scenes at many cable networks. The blueprints are being redrawn to construct what was traditionally the programming equivalent of aluminum siding -- product integration -- as the foundation for new series.

"In the old days of product placement, it was all about, 'Can you work it in somewhere?"' said Kevin McAuliffe, senior vp cross-platform initiatives at Universal Television Group. "Now it gets built in instead of being forced in."

As the TV industry experiments with introducing commercial messages outside of the 30-second spot model in projects like the NBC series "The Restaurant," a new breed of series, including "Rules," which premiered Friday, and "Wars," demonstrate how the product integration that was once an afterthought in cable programming is becoming one of the first steps in the development phase.

As a result, brand labels once buried in the background of a scene are ready for their close-ups, commanding the kind of tailor-made vehicles typically lavished on bankable actors.

"More and more, the two words 'product placement' are spoken very early in the development process," said Bruce David Klein, president of Atlas Media Corp., the production company behind cable series like "Top 5" on the Food Network. "It's just on the edge right now in basic cable. It's just getting to the point where the networks are completely overhauling how they think about it."

Products are getting star treatment out of economic necessity. Traditional supplementary funding sources for programming including international co-production and home video are drying up, leaving advertisers as viable investors. The marketers themselves are looking for new avenues to plug their wares in anticipation of digital video recorders with ad-skipping abilities hitting critical mass.

Enter "Rules," which tracks three sets of couples as they compete to remodel their dream houses. The series came out of discussions between Magna Global Entertainment (which has served as matchmaker between networks and advertisers represented by its parent company, Interpublic Group of Cos., for series like "Restaurant") and Evolution Film & Tape (the production company whose credits include "Fear Factor" and "Big Brother").

Magna was looking for a program to showcase Lowe's, the home-improvement retail chain. After Magna and Evolution hit upon the concept for "Rules," they received interest from TBS, a longtime collaborator with advertisers on franchises like "Dinner & a Movie."

What followed was five months of preproduction to map exactly how the Lowe's brand would be integrated into "Rules." The extensive planning was necessary to meld two worlds governed by separate laws of physics: commercials and reality television. While advertising depends on creating a tightly choreographed atmosphere to highlight a product, reality TV thrives on maximum unpredictability.

Linda Yaccarino, senior vp and general manager of sales at Turner Entertainment Group, was charged with protecting Lowe's marketing needs without sacrificing entertainment value. "You run a very delicate balance between something that resonates with a viewer and something that looks like an infomercial," she said.

Workshops were set up to instruct producers, cameramen, sound technicians -- even the contestants -- on the guidelines for presenting the Lowe's brand in every conceivable scenario on "Rules," from how the retailer's trucks would deliver supplies to the contestants to how the store's interiors and its sales clerks would be depicted.

Accustomed to producing well-lit commercials with actors playing the clerks, Lowe's representatives were nervous about letting "Rules" shoot actual transactions.

"I think it was a little scary at first for the Lowe's folks not to paint every picture in the store like they wanted to," Evolution president Douglas Ross said. "But if you try to make this a commercial and try to design every interaction and every shot, it's not going to work."

Similar in format to "Rules," USA's "Wars" has its own heavily embedded main sponsor in Home Depot. Universal also is signing up advertisers for product integration in the second season of USA's "Nashville Star" as well as an upcoming miniseries on Sci Fi Channel.

"There is much more discussion going on prior to greenlighting than I've ever seen," McAuliffe said. "I wouldn't be surprised to see deals down the road where some marketer will get to produce two hours of original programming as part of an upfront buy."

While other cable networks ranging from ABC Family to Discovery Channel explore similar arrangements, not everyone has jumped on the product-integration bandwagon. Scripps Networks, which owns such cable channels as Food Network, HGTV and Fine Living, is sticking to its strict church-state separation of programming and advertising.

"We have the integrity of the content to think about," Scripps senior vp ad sales Jon Steinlauf said. "There are other concerns as well regarding repeatability and category exclusivity that keep us from going in that direction."

Posted on aef.com: October 16, 2003


unknown, Reuters. October 13, 2003

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