Fox mystery show slays sponsors

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It's murder in the ad business-at least for Taco Bell and Jeep, the first major conspirators in a new program that brings the deadly deed to reality shows. The pair figure prominently in the latest prime-time show they hope will be a hit: Fox Broadcasting Corp.'s "Murder in Small Town X," a summer series in which contestants compete to solve a fictional murder in a fictional small town, against the backdrop of real-life consumer products and services.

Tricon Global Restaurants' Taco Bell Corp. will get major product-placement visibility, along with a sizable commercial buy. Taco Bell wouldn't disclose the amount of its deal, but executives close to the situation described it as a multimillion-dollar commitment. DaimlerChrysler signed on for new Jeep Liberty, although details could not be learned about how the vehicle would be featured. Media executives said other advertising partners will probably include a soft-drink marketer and possibly an automotive-fuel company.

"There are a couple of advertisers that have significant participation," said Jon Nesvig, president of advertising sales for News Corp. unit Fox. "They all have ad buys. A couple [of advertisers] have products featured in the shows."

Product placements in reality, or unscripted, TV shows have been the hottest trend for advertisers, gaining speed last summer in CBS's "Survivor" series in which nine advertisers from Target Stores to Dr. Scholl's and General Motors Corp.'s Pontiac Aztek were featured prominently in the series.

The plot thickens with the new show. Although Fox won't give specifics, a Taco Bell restaurant could be a place where contestants would need to find clues to solve the murder. Taco Bell will also buy about two spots in each weekly show, according to executives. Additionally, contestants will no doubt drive the Liberty and stop at gas stations, opening up other opportunities for advertisers.

By signing big-name advertisers who are often queasy about content, Fox is getting away with "Murder." The lineup represents a significant advance from "Temptation Island," a highly rated show that was supported by only a limited range of advertisers. Many were turned off by its steamy content.

It is Endeavor, the Beverly Hills, Calif., talent agency, that has been packaging the "Murder" deal for Fox with some advertisers. Mark Stroman, who runs TV corporate development for Endeavor, had been a longtime marketing and promotion executive at Fox and News Corp. One, the parent company's cross-marketing division. Endeavor also represents George Verschoor, executive producer of Final Stretch Productions, which produces "Murder in Small Town X."

Media executives say the advantage of dealing with a talent agency, rather than a network, is that an advertiser could gain exclusivity at the outset of a series by taking a high-profile position. Taco Bell has exclusivity in the show as a product placement partner, for example, but rival fast-feeders can buy commercial time in the program. It's unlikely, however, that the usual suspects, such as Burger King Corp. and McDonald's Corp., would participate in a show where Taco Bell has such as strong identity.

"We have been looking for media that cut through the clutter," said Debbie Myers, VP-media/entertainment and licensing for Taco Bell. "It was an interesting way to integrate the brand." Ms. Myers had been senior VP-advertising sales at Fox before coming to Taco Bell, and has worked with Mr. Stroman while at Fox.

She said Taco Bell's role in the show is still somewhat of a mystery. "We know that there are going to be key scenes that take place in a Taco Bell. But we don't know [exactly where]. We want [that decision] to be made in the editing, so it makes a good program." She said what Taco Bell doesn't want is for the chain's role to be so intrusive it distracts from the plot. "There are other things you can do, such as showing people eating our food, having bags in places."

"Murder" is unlike other reality shows because it's half-scripted and half-unscripted. Actors will play the part of the townspeople, while some 50 people will be included in the production, as well as 10 contestants.

The eight-week series will have contestants judging whether clues from the actors are valid or not. Each week a contestant will be eliminated if he or she takes up the wrong clue. The show doesn't have an exact launch date yet.

Other big-name consumer-product companies have hooked up with future unscripted shows. Pepsi-Cola Co. has inked a deal to be a part of "The Runner," ABC's reality program, which will launch sometime next season. The premise of "The Runner" is that one person tries to make it across the country within a month or so without being caught.

Most of these advertiser-friendly shows have mostly yielded good results for companies who became involved. For instance, Reebok International's recent turnaround has been, in part, credited to its initial involvement in the original "Survivor" series in summer 2000. An exception would be Pontiac Aztek, which has been plagued by deeper problems that "Survivor" couldn't fix (see story P. 16).

"Some of these shows are great opportunities," said Tim Spengler, exec VP-director of national broadcast at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative Media North America, Los Angeles. "It depends how a client is incorporated and woven into the story line. My sense is that ["Murder in Small Town X"] is part of landscape of the town. It's going to be more organic."

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