VIRTUAL' PROMOTION; NINTENDO PARTNERS NBC, BLOCKBUSTER FOR 3-D GAMING

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Fall is usually time for new product launches, but this autumn will feature what may be the first promotion marketing event ever to simultaneously launch a videogame system and a prime-time network TV lineup.

In what is being billed as a "virtual" promotion, Nintendo is teaming with NBC and Blockbuster Entertainment Corp. to launch its Virtual Boy portable videogame system and NBC's new fall slate.

The push, tied to a consumer sweepstakes and videogame sampling program distributed at 3,000 Blockbuster Video stores, is crucial to Nintendo's success this Christmas season.

Nintendo's fastest new home game system, the Ultra 64, won't be out until next April. Meanwhile, rival Sega of America has hit the market early with its fast new 32-bit Saturn home system and Sony Corp.'s 64-bit PlayStation is due in October.

The portable Virtual Boy videogame system falls far short of the sound and graphics capabilities of the home game systems, but it is being positioned as the first true 3-D, "virtual immersion" system.

The problem, however, is that that technology is not easily rendered on analog TV or in print ads, requiring consumers to sample the product before seeing its advantages.

"It's a tough product to market via traditional marketing means," said Mark Wescott, promotion manager of Nintendo. ".*.*. We need to get a lot of hands-on sampling, and this promotion is a creative way to accomplish that."

The sweepstakes, backed both by heavy NBC on-air promotion and in-store promotions at Blockbuster Video stores as well as 10,000 Nintendo retailers nationwide, will offer consumers an opportunity to rent a Virtual Boy unit with two videogames for two nights for $9.99. Consumers also receive a $10-off coupon for purchase of the $179.99 unit.

Ten million game pieces will be distributed through the retail outlets, along with 10 million preview guides to NBC's upcoming fall slate.

The NBC promotion runs mid-August through September and the network plans to include elements from the TV campaign in its areas on America Online and the new Microsoft Network, as well as Nintendo's World Wide Web site.

NBC, coming off one of its most successful seasons ever, is less reliant on the promotion for generating success, but the peacock network nonetheless has some critical new programming to launch.

Central to the success of the new-show launches is the Blockbuster connection, which links in with parent Viacom's Paramount Television unit.

Paramount is launching three new shows on NBC's fall lineup-"Pursuit of Happiness," "JAG" and "The Home Court"-and all will get a heavy dose in the Blockbuster outlets.

Nintendo estimated the value of the promotion at $5 million, but NBC executives place it closer to $50 million.

NBC marketing is handled in-house. Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, is Nintendo's agency.

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