NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Viewers of Sunday's launch of the new season of "Desperate Housewives" may have noticed a little something extra during the proceedings. As the show broke away for a set of ads, viewers saw a brief sign announcing a segment titled "Another Desperate Housewife," sponsored by Sprint.
During the short, which was crafted by "Desperate" staffers, romantic tension erupts among a married couple, with Sprint's Palm Pre playing a central role in the proceedings. In the next seven weeks, viewers will see seven more vignettes featuring the couple, who find that Sprint products help them learn more about infidelity, betrayal and justice than they ever might have imagined. A few weeks down the road, the two characters should show up in subtle fashion in the actual show, "Desperate Housewives."
It used to be easy to tell the difference between a TV show and a TV commercial. One entertained, one promoted. One had high drama or a laugh track, and the other featured shots of hamburgers or sneakers. As the TV networks launch shows for the 2009-2010 season, however, they are working feverishly to make the ads look just like the shows upon which they intrude.
"You want to be able to relate to viewers within the property they know and love and that they have a passion for," said Stephanie Kelly, Sprint's entertainment media manager. The telecommunications company has also embarked on a similar venture with NBC. Last week, the first episode of "Heroes" contained a commercial-break vignette featuring a new character from the superhero drama.
In Japan, characters from favorite programs have long cropped up in the ad breaks. Now in the U.S., TV networks are collaborating with marketers to concoct commercials that incorporate elements of the programs so they don't feel the entertainment is stopping so the selling and hyping can begin.
"More and more, the critical tipping point for these integration kinds of deals is being able to exploit the content in ways that make sense," said Geri Wang, senior VP-prime-time sales, ABC Television Network.
TV networks are trying "to look at the entire time you have an audience watching. They have some sort of relationship with your network," said Alison Tarrant, senior VP-integrated sales and marketing at the CW network. "You try to make it as entertaining and as meaningful as possible so they don't leave the commercials." During the debut of "Gossip Girl" this season, the CW ran an ad that talked about "evil" characters not only in its own "90210" but also the villain in the new 20th Century Fox teen-horror movie "Jennifer's Body."
Sprint's new "Desperate Housewives" vignettes incorporate a setting and narration that are familiar elements of the show. This sort of program-specific advertising has been on the rise in recent years -- NBC has pioneered use of the technique in everything from "Last Comic Standing" to "30 Rock" to "Heroes" -- but ABC's foray seems to be a sign that this sort of customization is becoming de rigueur when it comes to TV advertising. "This is something [ABC executives] have not done before, in terms of getting an actual writer and creator of one of their hit shows to be intimately involved in the product of these shorts," said Denise Ocasio, a managing director at WPP Group's MindShare who helped craft the "Housewives" deal and oversees the agency's Sprint business.
By weaving program elements into ad breaks, networks hope viewers will be less eager to channel surf or fast-forward, thus increasing commercial ratings. Because the ads are tied closely to a particular entertainment property, they demand the forging of closer relationships between network and advertiser, and result in commercials that really can't air anywhere else other than the show for which they were designed.
But these efforts require a significant increase in effort. As Sprint's Ms. Kelly describes it, the process of creating the "Housewives" shorts required much back-and-forth between ABC and the telecommunications company. Mr. Cherry and his production team "were responsible partners. They ran scripts by us and we had a representative on site as [the shorts] were being shot. We were able to review them afterwards," Ms. Kelly said.
Many logistical issues can also surface, said Lisa Herdman, VP-director of national programming at independent agency RPA, which helped devise promotional vignettes for the Honda Fit that aired during "30 Rock" and featured Judah Friedlander, who plays a character on the show. "There are often talent issues, production issues, production payment," she said.
Speaking during a recent conference during Advertising Week, NBC Universal president-sales and marketing Mike Pilot suggested that all TV networks would begin making use of the show-specific technique, as the efforts can foster deeper relationships between an individual program and an advertiser, as "Heroes" has with both Nissan and Sprint.
"I don't see them going away," he said, though he also suggested networks and advertisers may do fewer of them overall, making the ones that do get done more "elegant," or even more seamless and alluring.