Virtual placement gets second chance

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Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution has re-entered the world of selling "virtual" product placement, through which everyday products are digitally inserted into syndicated sitcoms.

Warner's new virtual product placement effort, called digital branded integration, is targeting deals for the distributor's off-network sitcoms, including "Will & Grace," "Friends" and "The Drew Carey Show." Media agency executives said Warner Bros. already has inked two deals with consumer product advertisers for virtual product placement in syndicated sitcoms.

Marathon effort

Marathon Ventures, a Midwest-based marketing and advertising company, is providing the virtual product-placement technology for Warner Bros. Marathon's president is David Brenner, who previously worked in the syndication business as senior VP-sales and marketing for MCA/Universal Television.

Brenner declined to comment and Warner Bros. would not confirm any deal.

Virtual product placement became a buzzword in 1999 when Warner Bros.' syndication division struck a deal with New Jersey-based Princeton Video Image, which possessed the technology to digitally insert products into TV shows.

That agreement included efforts to sell virtual product placement into shows such as "The Drew Carey Show" and "Friends." PVI also had a deal with Columbia TriStar Television Distribution's "Battledome," an athletic-competition weekend show. The company sold virtual product placements to Coca-Cola Co., Sony PlayStation and M&M/Mars in 2001.

At that point, PVI had already used its technology in sports programming, digitally inserting product logos onto signs behind the batter's box during baseball games. PVI's technology has also been used in NFL football games to superimpose first-down markers onto the video picture of the football field.

But PVI didn't produce any business, and Warner Bros. ended its agreement with the company some years ago, according to a syndication executive. PVI filed for bankruptcy in May 2003.

Beginning to warm

Advertising analysts say TV producers were the stumbling blocks in efforts to make virtual product placement a bigger business. Producers of scripted shows are often averse to having products intrude on their stories, analysts say, but now, with TV production costs rising, producers are beginning to warm up to product placement.

Warner Bros., executives say, will offer limited static product shots of a few seconds-for example, a bottle of Perrier inserted on a table. Characters will have limited interaction with the virtual products, an executive said.

In an effort to offer advertisers year-round product placement, Marathon Ventures has logged appropriate areas in most of Warner's sitcoms-spots where at least six seconds of video is available. These spots typically include video of kitchen counters, desks or coffee tables or feature characters holding unbranded products. Because virtually all sitcoms have scenes in kitchens, a host of appropriate products, such as breakfast cereals, could be inserted, an executive said.

Product placement has been viewed as a tool that can help advertisers combat broadcast rating erosion and the effects of digital video recording devices that enable viewers to skip commercials. Warner Bros., executives say, views this venture as a growing profit center alongside its traditional advertising sales business.

Wayne Friedman is a writer for Television Week.

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