VIEWPOINT;LIZ WINS IN THIS ROMANCE;500 STAFFERS?

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CBS is proud of its success at getting Elizabeth Taylor to appear in all four of its Monday night comedies on Feb. 26, but it appears to us Liz should be thanking CBS for allowing her to use its programming to help re-launch her new perfume, Elizabeth Taylor's Black Pearls.

We recognize there's a fine line between blatant product promotion and discrete cameo, but there seems little question which side of that line this effort falls on. Ms. Taylor's promotional stunt will begin on "The Nanny," where she loses her .*.*. black pearls. The story line places her in New York shooting a commercial for her new fragrance .*.*. Black Pearls. And so on, through one CBS sitcom after another.

This kind of stunt, tying products to the actual content of TV programming, is ripe with peril-at least for the broadcaster. In this case, it takes some of CBS' most valuable programming assets and essentially turns them into shills.

Overall, credibility is lowered. It says to viewers that their entertainment is not necessarily the primary goal, not if there's value to be gained by working products into the story line, even if only indirectly. It also invites other marketers and potential advertisers to hold out for the same kind of deal. Why pay prime-time rates for a 30-second spot when you can have the whole show?

The winner here is clearly Elizabeth Arden, seller of the perfume. It hasn't yet committed to buying spots in that Monday night lineup, but it would be money well spent. Just in case some viewers hadn't made the connection, a well-placed spot here and there could really ram the message home on "Murphy Brown" and "High Society." Either way, the perfume gets a boost that is really beyond price.

It should come as no surprise that by most accounts this Black Pearls hunt was really Ms. Taylor's idea, while CBS' main contribution to the process was caving in. CBS would have served itself and its producers better if it had exerted more control over Liz's script.

Corporate hubris in the age of the high-flying Internet is nothing new. Startup ventures are making millions in the stock market-and deserve to beat their chests. But when big business comes stomping in, hubris is creating sometimes devastating results.

The implosion of the News Corp./MCI online service this month is only the latest example.

It was obvious from the get-go the venture had troubles. With the problem of meshing two strong corporate cultures came internecine bickering, the fits and starts, the power struggles. And then the letdown: the layoff of 189 people-40% of the staff-and the recasting of News Corp./MCI Online Ventures from a complete Web-based online service to a mere content area, one of thousands on the Web that will compete for marketer ad support.

Has anyone asked why News Corp./MCI had nearly 500 employees to begin with? Prodigy Services Co. has only 600 employees-and 1.4 million subscribers. News Corp./MCI's service hadn't even been launched when the layoffs hit. Tales are emerging of an environment where salaries were inflated, budgets were bloated (the venture reportedly lost more than $100 million) and, in the words of one ex-employee, "money was spent like it was being thrown out a window."

The Web is an exciting place to be, and for some, it's a license to print money. But it should never be-no matter how big the company-a license to throw money away.

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