NBC and Omnicom Group's Full Circle Entertainment plan a comedic summer series based on "E," the wickedly humorous Matt Beaumont novel that relies on a string of e-mail to tell the tale of a fictional London ad firm and its efforts to capture a vaunted Coca-Cola account.
Full Circle is searching for two advertisers whose products will play integral roles in the show: Miller Shanks will be pitching to win business from one marketer and fighting to keep another whose account has gone into review. Nabbing one of these prominent plot integrations is believed to run between $400,000 and $500,000, according to people familiar with the situation.
"Because it takes place in an ad agency, it's going to be about creating ads, creating marketing campaigns, and that's where the opportunity is," said Robert Riesenberg, president-CEO of Full Circle, a firm that specializes in matching advertisers with entertainment projects. "It would cheat the audience if you used fake brands."
One hope is to launch an online site for the show in the weeks before the first episode appears on TV, generating viral buzz that would give the two advertisers other ways to reach potential fans. NBC is contemplating a six-episode arc for this one-hour comedy show that could launch next year before the network begins its coverage of the Olympics.
The road from interesting idea to viable TV program is always uncertain, but NBC's consideration of this concept is evidence of a new willingness on the part of broadcast networks to embrace product appearances in what has long been considered prime real estate: scripted comedies and dramas. In years past, TV networks were happy to lace sports and reality programming with logos and soda cans, but comedies and dramas were viewed as off-limits. In 2003, for example, NBC turned down a deal that would have put Lincoln-Mercury and Sony Electronics in the drama "Las Vegas." The ad team in place at that time was nervous about offending traditional advertisers whose 30-second commercials would support the program, according to people close to the talks.
That stance has changed, said Ben Silverman, who earlier this year was named co-chairman, NBC Entertainment and Universal Media Studios. Because "the reality of time-shifting and DVRs exists," marketers are looking for ways to use TV that are "DVR-proof," he said. "You're just seeing this shift," he added. Motion pictures have long accepted the practice of weaving products into their milieu, said Mr. Silverman, "and scripted television is starting to embrace it."
In the pages of "E," the characters can be venal, bumbling and very flawed. At first blush, such people wouldn't seem to be the best custodians of valued brands. While the program's producers admit the characters will be "human," susceptible to bad behavior, temptation and workplace conflict, the products won't be denigrated. "We have always talked about using the book as a guide, not a blueprint," said Marc Abrams, a former co-executive producer on HBO's "Entourage," who will be supervising "E" along with partner Michael Benson. "We are viewing the brands as pearls," he added. "They make the success of our characters."
In another sign of how relationships between marketers and media outlets are evolving, advertisers who get involved with the program will have some say in matters. "Definitely, they will be part of the process, but the process will be led by the writers," said Mr. Silverman.
Getting "E" to the small screen isn't guaranteed. NBC's go-ahead hinges on seeing a story outline, which can't be written until the producers and the network know which advertisers will take part. Outside factors such as a writers' strike also could affect the outcome. NBC's Mr. Silverman said the network is encouraged by the concept as well as the fact that the program is rooted in source material. He and Mr. Riesenberg have worked together before; when Mr. Silverman ran the Reveille production studio, the two collaborated on programs such as "Blow Out" and "The Restaurant."
The idea for "E" came to Mr. Silverman when he was at Reveille. Widely known in ad-industry circles, the novel first published in 2000 is viewed as a roman à clef about the goings-on in McCann Erickson's London office; ad folks have even speculated in the past that certain characters in the book are based on Ben Langdon and Jim Heekin, who were, respectively, the former head of McCann London and the CEO of what was then known as McCann Erickson Worldwide.