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Product Placement on Reality TV Seems Somehow More Realistic

As the writers’ strike keeps the television networks scrambling to fill their schedules, the producers of reality shows are gladly stepping in to fill the vacuum.

And with the propensity of those producers to incorporate the products of sponsors into the programs, don’t be surprised if the vacuum bears a brand name like Hoover or Dyson.

It is typically easier to weave a product into an episode of a reality show like “American Idol” or “Survivor” than into a scripted series like “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Two and a Half Men.”

For one thing, the contestants in reality shows are usually more willing to pitch products than the actors in scripted programs. Actors prefer to worry about their art — and their long-term value as endorsers of a certain soda if viewers have already watched them cheerfully drinking a different brand.

Also, viewers seem more tolerant when products turn up in settings that are deemed realistic rather than fictitious.

A result is that the networks are expanding their reality plans, particularly as the ratings for some strike fare like “American Gladiators” are surpassing the viewership for the scripted shows they replaced.

NBC, which has embraced reality perhaps more ardently than its competitors, is even planning a prime-time reality special for May 11 that is being developed by and for an advertiser, Teleflora. The show — which also involves the NBC morning show “Today,” Redbook magazine and the Reveille production company — will center on a search for “America’s Favorite Mom.”

Needless to say, the winner can expect to be festooned with flowers, and a rose is to be named in her honor.

“We’re looking to be the best partners for our advertisers,” said Ben Silverman, co-chairman at NBC Entertainment, part of the NBC Universal division of General Electric. And one way to do that, he said, is “building programming assets in partnership with our advertisers.”

The trend of reality programs becoming showcases for brands is even having an impact on series in which advertisers are not paying to place products. For instance, the Clearly Canadian line of beverages is featured prominently in a reality series, “Bobby G: Adventure Capitalist,” which will make its debut Thursday on the Mojo HD network as part of a block of three business shows called “Mojo Money Night.”

The series follows the adventures — and misadventures — of Bobby Genovese, an entrepreneur in the field of so-called small-cap or penny stocks; he owns companies including the BG Capital Group and BG Capital Management.

A good deal of the plot of the eight weekly episodes of “Bobby G: Adventure Capitalist” is devoted to his efforts to revive Clearly Canadian through steps like hiring as an endorser a popular Canadian-born athlete, Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns basketball team.

“I love brand-name companies, especially ones that have fallen on hard times,” Mr. Genovese said in a telephone interview. Even so, he added, “I had no idea the beverage business is as tough as it is.”

Mojo HD is part of In Demand Networks, which is owned by a consortium that includes Comcast and Cox Communications. The channel is aimed at an affluent audience, primarily male and ages 18 to 49.

Although brands are prevalent in “Bobby G: Adventure Capitalist,” the viewers are sophisticated enough to distinguish between programming and infomercials, said Nick Davis, executive producer of the series for Nick Davis Productions.

“We were encouraged to tell the story, warts and all,” Mr. Davis said. “If Clearly Canadian had imploded, we’d have covered it.”

The NBC special, “Teleflora Presents America’s Favorite Mom,” will be a kinder, gentler show, seeking entries from viewers in categories like single mothers, working mothers and “unconventional” mothers. A Web site, americasfavoritemom.com, has been set up to accept nominations; it can also be reached through teleflora.com.

The increasing interest among advertisers in branded entertainment is easily explained, said Lynda Resnick, chairwoman at Teleflora. “People are watching television; they’re just not watching commercials,” she said. “That is the distinction.”

But as a sponsor of branded entertainment, “you have to be integrated into the content, not added on,” Ms. Resnick said, because no one wants to watch “a talking head at the end of a show.”

“And I don’t want to bore people,” she added, so the show has to be entertaining enough to avoid playing like a program-length commercial.

The producer of the special, Reveille, is also creating reality series for NBC including “American Gladiators” and “The Biggest Loser.” Both have branded-entertainment deals with marketers like Subway restaurants, 24 Hour Fitness and Toyota.

“Advertiser partnerships support the show with media buys, with integrated promotions,” said Mark Koops, managing director at Reveille, which help “reach out for a wider audience” than the network alone could seek.

For example, Redbook, part of the Hearst Magazines unit of the Hearst Corporation, will encourage its readers to nominate favorite mothers and will feature the finalist and winning contestants from the TV special in coming issues.

“This idea Teleflora had is so of the moment,” said Mary E. Morgan, vice president and publisher at Redbook, “taking reality television and combining it with consumer-generated content.”

The reference was to the materials that consumers submit to enter the contest on the favorite-mom Web site: they can upload photographs and video clips in addition to submitting nominations.

Mr. Koops was among the executives who took over Reveille after Mr. Silverman, the chief executive, left to join NBC Entertainment. Mr. Silverman played down a perception that those ties were why NBC buys so many shows from Reveille.

“The greatest worry of all is if ‘American Gladiators’ had been a hit on Fox or CBS or ABC,” Mr. Silverman said. “Then your article is: ‘Forget the conflict of interest. Ben’s an idiot.’ ”

 

Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. January 23, 2008

Copyright © 2008 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.