NBC will wrangle with an "X Factor" in its plans for next year's Super Bowl, while the Fox program of the same name could have more of an obsession with football than anyone may have previously guessed.
As part of an unorthodox discussion, Fox and NBC will promote big-ticket shows that run on each other's networks in order to help Pepsi link its sponsorship of the "X Factor" program this fall to its advertising on NBC's Super Bowl broadcast in early 2012, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Already, NBC has surprisingly agreed to run a Pepsi commercial in its coming Feb. 5 broadcast of Super Bowl XLVI featuring the winner or winners of Fox's much anticipated "X Factor" -- just hours (maybe less) before the Peacock plans to launch the second season of rival song contest "The Voice." Pepsi has signed on as an exclusive season-long sponsor of "X Factor," and will have its products and messages woven into the show. "X Factor" will feature Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul (and some familiar thematic elements) from the network's spring powerhouse "American Idol," and is one of this fall's most-anticipated TV offerings.
A deal quietly being worked out between Fox, NBC, and Pepsi could make airing the commercial worth Pepsi's while. True, by running the ad NBC will -- whether explicitly or not -- nod to "X Factor" during the top-rated gridiron classic, but the commercial will not include any logos or identifying marks from the program, or make overt references to the show, according to a person familiar with the matter.
And, in an eyebrow-raising development, as Pepsi makes reference during "X Factor's" run on Fox to the fact the winner will appear in a Super Bowl commercial, the program would have to tell viewers verbally and graphically that the Super Bowl is set to air on NBC, according to Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the National Football League. The NFL was involved in working out a process so that Pepsi could link its appearance on "X Factor" to its Super Bowl advertising. That would give NBC's Super Bowl broadcast a promotional mention several times in a program expected to be one of the most-watched this fall.
One person familiar with the negotiations suggested some final details were still being ironed out, such as how NBC will be mentioned or depicted on Fox's air.
Acceptance of the terms of this deal would seem to represent a new step for broadcast networks. Over the years, they have been wary of allowing promotion of other TV networks' properties on its air.
In 2009, for instance, NBC scrapped a plan to have the cast of Fox's "Glee" sing Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" during the Peacock's broadcast of the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. In 1997, NBC and CBS turned down a commercial from General Motors' Cadillac featuring actor Dennis Franz playing a tough-talking cop -- much like the character he played on the then-running ABC hit "NYPD Blue."
And in 2004, NBC squelched ads from Time Warner 's TNT that had been running for several weeks during "ER" on NBC affiliates as well as its own stations. The commercials promoted repeats of CBS drama "Without A Trace" that were running on TNT. Not so coincidentally, the spots also reminded viewers watching "ER" that they were missing originals of "Without A Trace" that ran opposite "ER" on CBS.
In recent years, some networks have tested new ideas. CBS in 2010 aired an ad during Super Bowl XLIV from Time Warner ' TruTV. Broadcast networks routinely refuse commercials from their cable rivals, in the belief that viewers could be perusaded to watch a media outlet that isn't their own. The TruTV ad promoted the new series "NFL: Full Contact" by featuring Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and did not include a time and date when that show might air. Meanwhile, American Express seemed to face little challenge when it ran an ad in 2007 featuring comedienne Tina Fey acting a lot like the character Liz Lemon she portrays on NBC's "30 Rock." The American Express ad ran on both ABC and CBS.
NBC's acceptance of the Pepsi ad is all the more intriguing because of the importance it has placed on its Super Bowl broadcast to further other parts of its schedule.
NBC Universal has made no secret of its support of the fledgling program "The Voice," which features singers such as Cee-Lo and Christina Aguilera selecting and coaching singing contestants. While nowhere near the success of "Idol" or even ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," the new NBC program has proved a top draw for viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 -- the very demographic advertisers love to reach. Behind the scenes at "The X Factor," at least one top production executive has been heard to grumble that NBC made sure to launch "The Voice" for the spring of 2011 because it carries thematic elements that have made "X Factor" a success overseas.
NBC sees "The Voice" as a linchpin of its turnaround effort. The network, now majority-owned by Comcast Corp. since that company took over parent NBC Universal, has lagged behind its peers in the ratings for years. Even a mild spotlight on a person associated with "X Factor," however, could potentially lob a mixed message onto NBC's air when the network is hoping to push Super Bowl viewers to its own entry in TV's music-competition race. Why remind viewers, after all, about the plethora of similar programs available to them when you've put so much money and effort to market your own? Nonetheless, a Pepsi spokeswoman said NBC had cleared the ad to run.
NBC is counting on the power of the Super Bowl -- the two most recent broadcasts have been the most-watched events in TV history -- to get viewers excited about watching "The Voice" as well as "Smash," a musical-themed drama slated to debut the day after the Super Bowl runs.
"The Super Bowl represents the biggest television audience of the year, and we think that the return of 'The Voice' is deserving of this prominent showcase," said Robert Greenblatt, chairman- NBC Entertainment, in a recent statement. "We also will shine the promotional spotlight throughout Super Bowl Sunday for Monday's debut of 'Smash,' which will give it a powerful launch platform."
PepsiCo's years-long sponsorship of the Super Bowl may help break down any resistance to the agreements. Between 2001 and 2010, PepsiCo spent about $170.8 million on advertising during the game, making it the second-biggest spender on the event behind Anheuser-Busch InBev, according to data from Kantar. The company benched advertising for its beverages in 2010 as it pursued a "Pepsi Refresh" project, but since that time, its flagship brand has been surpassed by Diet Coke in terms of share of the U.S. soft-drink market. PepsiCo returned its beverages to the Super Bowl in 2011.
Pepsi has been reported to spend around $60 million for its "X Factor" sponsorship, and the company routinely buys multiple ad berths in the Super Bowl. NBC has been seeking as much as $3.5 million for a 30-second spot in next year's game, though Pepsi is likely to pay less, especially if it purchases a large percentage of the available inventory in the broadcast.
While Pepsi has successfully lobbied NBC to carry an ad featuring a participant in a rival network's show, Pepsi in the past faced defeat on this front. In 1997, ABC refused to run a Pepsi ad featuring actor Robert Stack -- then appearing in NBC's "Unsolved Mysteries" -- trying to defend cans of the company's popular soda from theft with a "Pepsi Club."