Eagle-eye marketers find right spot, right time

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Snapple?" Jerry Seinfeld says in offering a guest a drink on his "Seinfeld" show, now in syndication. But the comedian could just as well offer his guest a Gatorade in some future run of the episode, thanks to digital technology and increasing interest in product placement.

The longtime advertising tactic of product placement is attracting new interest in a TV universe of ever more fragmented, distracted viewers. Syndicators especially are making product placement deals for their programming, and "virtual" placement specialists like Princeton Video Image can digitally insert products into TV programs long after the shows' original run.

It has always been somewhat easier for syndicators to offer product placement than for networks because the syndication companies control TV production of their first-run programming and because most syndicators are in charge of selling advertising in these shows. Syndicators increasingly are linking product placement to advertising buys. Product placement can be an incentive to pull in new advertisers that normally don't buy syndication or used as a bonus incentive to major advertisers already using syndication.

REALITY AND ACTION-ADVENTURE A GOOD FIT

Most product or brand-name placement deals in syndication are for first-run reality-based or action-adventure programming such as "Baywatch Hawaii" and "Earth: Final Conflict." Deals also cover such dating or variety shows as "Blind Date" or "The Cindy Margolis Show."

Universal Worldwide Television has made a significant effort to involve product placement as a central component of advertising/promotion deals for its programming. Indeed, its "Blind Date" has become a successful Monday-Friday late-night strip in the last two years, and has also developed into a product placement bonanza.

"Blind Date" shows couples through various stages of a blind date. Corona beer has done product placement for the last two seasons-beer is strategically placed in a bar or restaurant where couples usually meet. Those Los Angeles area watering holes also are identified. "Blind Date" participants wear T-shirts sporting the name of WorldCom's 1-800 Collect while working out at a health club. For L'Oreal, producers of the show dyed a woman's hair during one taping, where the product was seen and mentioned.

"The show really lends itself to product placement because we are out and about so much," says Matt Cooperstein, senior VP-domestic television syndication for Universal Worldwide.

Future product placement brands could include Excite.com, which already features a full-scale Web site (blinddate.excite.com) for the show.

"Going forward we have had a lot of [product placement] requests [for `Blind Date'] from our advertising partner, Tribune" Entertainment, Mr. Cooperstein says. Tribune sells national advertising for the show.

`FIFTH WHEEL' TARGETS NATPE

Universal Worldwide plans a similar product placement push with a new dating show it is featuring at NATPE, a strip titled "The Fifth Wheel." Much of the new dating show will take place in a limousine, where a couple is on a date. Later in the date, another person is asked to enter the limo to romantically lure away one of the participants.

Mr. Cooperstein says another beer marketer is considering placement in "The Fifth Wheel." 1-800 Collect wraparound service may seek a role in the new show.

Other syndicators also have done their fair share of product placement deals, including Pearson Television Domestic Syndication for "Baywatch Hawaii." In recent years, "Baywatch Hawaii" and its predecessor show, "Baywatch," have cinched placement deals with Coca-Cola Co., DeBeers Consolidated Mines and WorldCom's MCI.

Pearson wants to increase its product placement deals.

"We are looking into getting into the game area as well," says Michael Weiden, president of advertising sales. Pearson syndicates first-run strip series "Family Feud" and "To Tell the Truth." The latter, a new version of the old game standard, debuted this season.

For new shows, syndicators can use product placement to add value. That's what AT&T Corp. and Dr Pepper/Seven Up's 7UP developed, mixing product placement with paid advertising deals on King World Productions' unproven "Cindy Margolis Show."

For established syndication shows, the formula works the other way around: Advertisers, instead of syndicators, often make the requests for product placement deals.

"There is more of an incentive when the [advertising] dollar commitments are higher. More money goes further than less money," Mr. Weiden says.

Broadcast networks are catching up with syndicators in product placement efforts, which are playing big parts in popular reality and game show programming. Major product placement efforts were part of big paid advertising deals for two major recent hits-ABC's "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and CBS' "Survivor."

AT&T has been a major beneficiary when "Millionaire" host Regis Philbin needs to arrange a "lifeline" phone call for a contestant. "Let's call our friends at AT&T," Mr. Philbin says regularly. Advertising executives say this is a perfect placement that works within the content of show.

"It needs to be appropriate," says Marc Goldstein, president of national broadcast and programming at MindShare USA, New York.

Rival CBS cashed in on product placement last summer with its hit reality series "Survivor," which offered viewers Reebok-clad castaways in such activities as making calls on Ericsson phones and drying off with towels from Target Stores, and being shown how to maneuver through an obstacle course by Army Green Berets. All these product placers advertised on the series. "Survivor: The Australian Outback," the sequel debuting next week, will ply more products on air.

EXPANDED WISH LISTS

With products creeping onto more TV programming, agency executives are expanding their wish lists. Peter Knobloch, president of the R.J. Palmer media buying unit of EPB Communications, New York, says he would welcome the opportunity to place products in sitcoms or other programs, now that more broadcast networks appear open to product placements.

Perhaps the biggest growth area for product placement for all TV sellers is with virtual imaging technology-the ability to insert products digitally into new or existing shows in post-production. Princeton Video is one of the best-known purveyors of this kind of technology.

"A variety of syndicators are now actively trying to sell" virtual placements, says Paul Slagle, VP-sales and marketing at Princeton Video, which will show its digital capabilities as a NATPE exhibitor. Currently for ad placements, network ad reps are seeking 25% to 50% of the price of the same amount of time sold as commercial time, he says.

MORE THAN LINES ON FOOTBALL FIELDS

Princeton Video has deals with all the networks that air National Football League games in which home TV viewers can see a digitally inserted first down line across the field.

The imaging house wants to expand from sports into entertainment shows and for the last two years has written deals with syndicated shows such as Columbia TriStar Television Distribution's "Battledome," an athletic-competition weekend show. Princeton Video has sold placement to Coca-Cola Co., Sony PlayStation and M&M/Mars.

Princeton Video already is venturing into new areas with a number of different media sellers including Lifetime Television and Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution. The company is most active with Warner Bros. in selling "virtual" product placement in syndication on a number programs, including "The Drew Carey Show," "Friends" and "Suddenly Susan."

Virtual product placement technology allows products or images to be retrofitted into or removed from existing programming, Mr. Slagle says. "It gives the seller the flexibility to sell the same program over and over again," he says.

But not everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. TV "sales organizations want to make sure they are not cannibalizing business," Mr. Slagle says.

Network, cable and syndication advertising teams may be increasingly pushed into product placement deals as other technologies invade their space-specifically the TiVo and ReplayTV digital video recorder technologies.

"My standard leave-behind sales pitch is that the 30-second commercial is losing its power, due to viewer surfing and zapping technologies like TiVo and Replay," Mr. Slagle says. "And salespeople alike are looking to backfill that erosion."

Contributing: Jack Neff.

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