Product placement, that increasingly ubiquitous blending of advertising into the entertainment programming itself, is heading off to college.
College Sports Television, a seven-month-old, 24-hour college sports channel, has struck a marketing agreement with Nike that will include not just ad time and promotions for the company, but a regular half-hour program called "Nike Training Camp." More often than not, the program will feature only teams that have endorsement deals with Nike.
Although the value of the agreement is estimated at less than $1 million, it subsidizes the fledgling channel's efforts to create programming that can stand out among offerings from dozens of other cable channels. But just as quickly, it renews questions about the proper boundaries between advertising and programming as well as between academia and commerce.
"Nike Training Camp" follows other recent branded programs, like last month's hourlong Pepsi show on the WB network called "Play for a Billion" with Drew Carey as the host, and this month's one-hour reality special on NBC called "Degree Road to the Ironman," paid for by Unilever to promote its deodorant.
Next month NBC plans to run "The National Dog Show Presented by Purina," a two-hour special, after the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. But those programs are one-time-only or annual specials; "Nike Training Camp'' has at least six episodes scheduled.
"Embedded advertising is now taking over television," said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert in Portland, Ore., an organization that opposes what its members see as the overcommercialization of the media. "This is just another example of that." Worse, Mr. Ruskin said, embedded advertising is deceptive because people do not realize that the ads are ads.
Moreover, critics charge, academia is being corrupted by the money and prestige that attend television coverage.
Executives at CSTV, as the channel is called, said that viewers could make a distinction between the programming and the advertising and that the schools benefited.
"There's always criticism," said Chris Bevilacqua, executive vice president at CSTV in New York. "But by and large what Nike and other corporate sponsors do has high value to college student athletes and universities, because it helps them promote their universities."
CSTV is one of the many new cable channels attempting to become a viable player in a 500-channel universe. It is available in about 15 million homes, but expects that number to increase to 30 million by the end of 2005. Its founders have shepherded a new cable channel to success before: Brian Bedol, CSTV's president and chief executive, and Stephen Greenberg, the chairman, established the Classic Sports Network in 1995, eventually selling it to ESPN.
Mr. Bedol said the difficulty of reaching consumers with marketing messages made the format of "Nike Training Camp" compelling. Each episode will focus on a different top college coach, often wearing Nike clothing, who shares training techniques and instructs aspiring athletes.
"I had a sense," Mr. Bedol said, "that for the first time things really were changing, that technology would force changes in the way television was programmed, advertisers used it and viewers watched it."
The relationship between content and commerce was more plain in the early years of television, as advertisers and agencies routinely created shows like "Texaco Star Theater" and "Coke Time" to run on the networks. When sponsoring a single show became too expensive for one company, networks turned to selling commercials to multiple sponsors.
Branded programs are showing new appeal, though, as marketers increasingly scramble to stand out to consumers who encounter a daily blizzard of advertising. Among the shows that have embraced product placement is "The Best Damn Sports Show Period" on Fox SportsNet, which incorporates the advertising into the show. For example, each day a dinner from Outback Steakhouse is delivered to the set as the hosts discuss the sports news of the day.
Such arrangements work for the Fox program, network executives have said, because the show gains personality and believability when familiar products are woven into it.
CSTV takes the same view. "In some contexts, certain sponsors bring authenticity," Mr. Bedol said.
A Nike executive said the formula, when well executed, works in reverse as well: the context can bring authenticity to the sponsor.
"The approach that CSTV is taking is a bit more innovative and sophisticated than just putting in our product and banging the consumer over the head with it," said Adam Helfant, vice president for United States sports marketing at Nike in Beaverton, Ore.
While CSTV retains creative control, Mr. Helfant said, Nike's understanding is that most episodes will focus on "Nike schools and coaches." Other programs on CSTV includes "Crystal Ball," which predicts winners of games; "Coast2Coach," with news conferences of coaches; and "Friday Night Hockey."
CSTV's programs and marketing deals place a new magnifying lens on college sports; that worries critics who say academia should be sheltered from certain market forces.
Murray Sperber, a professor of English and American Studies at Indiana University and a critic on college athletics, said the commercialization of college sports was contributing to the commercialization of colleges. Such arrangements make sense for corporations because universities have relatively pristine names, but the deals entangle the schools in commercialism, he said.
"One of the points of universities is to stand outside commercial society, and as a result we're very free to criticize commercial society," Professor Sperber said.
Mr. Ruskin, of Commercial Alert, agreed. "This is one small part of the commercialization of the university, and its drift from the education mission, obviously at high cost to the integrity of the universities."
But the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, Myles Brand, said that CSTV had so far proved beneficial to the schools and sports it covered. "We like the content," he said, "because it lets us spotlight some of the sports and schools that don't normally get heard of."
"It always brings challenges when you have new partners," he added. "I would hope and do believe that the CSTV leadership knows we're interested in keeping a balance between the commercialization and the integrity of the sports."
Posted on aef.com: October 30, 2003
Nat Ives, The New York Times. October 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.