The ways the networks are embedding advertiser products are as varied as the wide range of program genres offered on cable. Even smaller networks are finding multiple ways as they become more skilled in balancing advertiser and viewer interests.
Game Show Network has come up with a "four-pronged" strategy for advertisers, says Michael Sakin, senior VP-sales for the channel, co-owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment and Liberty Media Corp. The oldest tactic is to use products as game show prizes. The newest is to create shows that will never see the light of day unless an advertiser is interested. That "only if" approach is unusual among cable networks. And GSN is just starting to proposition clients with the concept at the same time it pitches shows that will emerge regardless of what integrated product placement deals may come.
Among that latter type is its "Cram" game, which found a variety of ways to showcase General Motors Corp.'s Saturn Ion-for example, asking contestants to decipher answers blinked in Morse Code by an Ion's headlights.
Yet another opportunity at GSN is so-called "live billboards," in which a game show host highlights a certain product in a 15-second segment of the show. "We allow them to poke fun at the product, and be a little sarcastic and funny," says Mr. Sakin, who adds that the quips are pre-approved by the advertisers.
Integrated product placement deals, which can attract seven-figure revenue rewards even at Game Show Network, are all the more important to solo operators like GSN that are not part of far-flung Viacom-munities of cable channels. Placement deals help these cable outlets compete with more established channels for ad dollars.
STILL HAVE :30S AVAILABLE
What's more, the product placements don't eat into 30-second spot avails, notes George Ehinger, senior VP-advertising sales and strategic relationships at another narrowly focused service, Vulcan's TechTV. Among that network's product placement arrangements is a weekly "LAN Party" segment of "The Screen Savers" series; nVidia Corp. supplies the hardware and network interactivity that allow viewers to play games against the studio host.
Much larger networks are offering a spectrum of opportunities as well. Among the more creative was Walt Disney Co.-owned ESPN's TV movie "Junction Boys," which debuted last December and tells the story of Texas A&M's football team in 1954. The network used vintage bottles of Cadbury Schweppes' Dr Pepper and classic GM cars to enhance the story line.
News Corp.'s Fox Cable Network Group is also extremely prolific with product placement deals. For example, its FX channel inked a deal with Anheuser-Busch's Budweiser that involved a completely commercial-free telecast of the movie "Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo"-except for an original 7-minute short film titled "Budweiser Best Man," which ran in the middle of the "Deuce" flick. Rival Coors Brewing Co.'s Coors Light was integrated in three different ways in the final three episodes of FX's new series "Lucky," including one episode featuring the Coors Light Twins who have appeared in the brew's advertising.
Barry Schwartz, the Fox group's senior VP-integrated sales and marketing, says about 10 programs on networks in the group include product placement. But "next year, we'll probably do 20, and I could be conservative with that number."
In fact, almost every channel contacted for this article says product placement is on the rise.
Melissa Alcruz, VP-trade marketing at Universal Television Networks' USA Network, says smaller advertisers are starting to get into the act. USA has struck a number of product placement deals, including some for high-profile series "Monk" and "The Dead Zone."
Ms. Alcruz sees a growing cleverness in the ways product placement is used by marketers. "A few years ago, people were saying, `I just need my product there on the set.' But now they realize it needs to be integral and make sense for the show."