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NISSAN, VISA ARE FIRST STARGAZERS DEALMAKER BELL ATLANTIC WILL FOLD MARKETING WING INTO PHONE CONSORTIUM

By Published on .

Bell Atlantic is finalizing deals with marketers that will participate in its Stargazer interactive TV test, scheduled to finally get off the ground next month.

Nissan Motor Cars USA and Visa International will be among the participants in the Core Advertiser Program, executives said, testing various interactive marketing techniques for a year in 1,000 households in northern Virginia.

A Nissan spokesman confirmed the company's participation in the test.

There could be bigger things in store for Stargazer advertisers. Bell Atlantic Video Services' interactive marketing function is scheduled to be folded into Media Co., the Howard Stringer-led Baby Bell consortium that is designing programming to be carried by Bell Atlantic and consortium partners Nynex Corp. and Pacific Telesis Group.

Under that scenario, marketers that sign on with Stargazer could find themselves in front of many more eyeballs in the near future.

"National coordination of advertising for the three operating companies would be handled by Media Co.," said Larry Coleman, a director at Bell Atlantic Video Services in charge of interactive marketing and advertising. "Are we talking to the advertisers about the opportunities beyond anything Bell Atlantic is doing? Yes."

Of the three Baby Bells, Bell Atlantic has taken the lead in courting advertiser involvement in its interactive TV tests. Mr. Coleman said it's likely he will be transferred to Media Co. in a few weeks.

Much remains unknown about Media Co.'s plans, including how it will deliver programming, where it will get that programming, what interactive model it will use and when it all might be available. Mr. Stringer, formerly president of CBS Broadcast Group, brings powerful cache to the group, but has admitted his job won't be easy.

In the meantime, Bell Atlantic will be the next major telecommunications company to test interactive TV with consumers.

Stargazer, essentially a video on demand system, will offer programming from a variety of sources, including Hollywood studios and documentary companies. One option for advertisers is to create "infomarketing modules," interactive infomercials that can be accessed on demand.

Under that scenario, a consumer ordering a movie on demand would see a message from a marketer before the movie starts, asking if he would like to learn about the marketer's product after the movie. If yes, an interactive infomercial would run, allowing the consumer to skip among various sections at will and request more information.

Bell Atlantic was asking fees of $125,000 to $250,000 to participate in the one-year test, but agency executives said the figure has dropped below $100,000.

About a dozen marketers are expected to participate eventually, but at launch there may only be six or seven, said Bill Harvey, CEO of Next Century Media, a New Paltz, N.Y., new-media consultancy that has been lining up advertisers for Bell Atlantic. He added that backlash from the much-maligned--but more sophisticated--Time Warner Full Service Network has made marketers skittish.

Media Co.'s involvement could change their minds, however.

"Getting Stringer was a coup," said one agency executive. "Here we have a network programming guy, which says the quality of the content is going to be good."

The executive added: "In the short term we see [Stargazer] as a research & development learning experience, but in the long term .... knowing they're going to cover the top six or seven markets in the country .... it seems to me is very attractive."

Others are more skeptical, saying the Baby Bell group has a lot to prove beyond its pedigree.

"They've got a consortium and that's wonderful, and I'm expecting grand things out of them, but tell me more," said Lynn Bolger, VP-director of new-media technologies at True North Media, New York. Ms. Bolger has been in discussions with Bell Atlantic about Stargazer, but said no clients have committed to the test yet.

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