Tuning In: KFC's Odd 'Community' Perch

Brian Steinberg on the TV Season and the Future of the Medium

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PROGRAM GUIDE

KFC's wacky flight on "Community": KFC had an unusual perch in NBC's "Community" sitcom last night, enjoying multiple references to its pop-culture heritage -- including Colonel Sanders, the herbs and spices in its fried-chicken recipe and some of its historical red-and-white bucket packaging. At one point in the show, one character even talks about handing out KFC sandwiches to reporters -- but then thinks twice about it, recognizing the press might think the sandwiches were some kind of product placement. (That sort of meta-commentary is a nod to all the irony-sniffing young-uns who watch archly humorous TV shows like "Community," in case you weren't sure).

'Community'
'Community' Credit: NBC
Originally, much of this was going to be included gratis -- it was all cooked up, so to speak, in "Community's" writers' room. NBC, seeing what it had on its hands -- an episode devoted to the cast of "Community" getting stuck in a space-launch simulator with a computer guided by a Colonel Sanders avatar -- approached KFC well before the episode was slated to air, a KFC spokesman confirmed.

"We know TV integrations done strategically can elevate our brand in an integrated fashion that conventional advertising cannot," said Ralph Heim, the chain's media director, in a statement.

We won't dispute Mr. Heim, but we are curious about one thing. The only actual ad for KFC didn't come until nearly 28 minutes into the program, and when it did show up, it was the second commercial in the ad break. Wouldn't a more-significant-than-usual sponsor of a program merit a better placement of its ad? General Motors' Chevrolet, whose cars show up throughout various episodes of CBS's "Hawaii Five-0," certainly wants its big investment noticed: Chevy cars show up throughout various episodes and a "bumper" announcing the Chevy support appears every week as the first ad in the show's first ad break, accompanied by the popular "Hawaii Five-0" theme.

We realize KFC doesn't have the marketing heft of General Motors, but with such a major product placement in "Community," you'd think the placement of KFC's TV ad during the program would have been more, um, crispy.

CHANNEL SURFING

Broadcast's basic-cable blues?: The Wall Street Journal breaks out many, many paragraphs for a story that tells us about the boom in basic-cable programming. These shows are cheaper to produce -- because the cablers order half as many episodes as the broadcasters do, and sometimes less -- but drawing better talent and prompting thoughts about how the TV-business is changing.

Hold on, though. Basic-cable programming has been around for, well, a while, as anyone who recalls such classics as USA's "Monk" (which debuted in 2002 and even had some of its episodes run briefly on ABC), TNT's Wall Street drama "Bull" (2000) and sci-fi series "Witchblade" (2001) or AMC's old-days-of-radio drama "Remember WENN" (1996) can attest. Yes, as The Journal suggests, this stuff has become a bigger business, but then the story turns back on itself and suggests the cable outlets spend just as much money on securing reruns to old broadcast shows as they do producing their cheaper originals.

It's true that basic cable has gotten bigger while broadcast has gotten smaller. But if you're an advertiser, it's still much easier to blast a message out on "American Idol" or "NCIS" than it is to string it across "Army Wives" and "Royal Pains" in an effort to garner the same reach. We're not even going to get into how small the number of people actually watching the much-lauded "Mad Men" each week is when compared to the crowd that gathers for broadcast-network fare.

Whether or not cable and broadcast ever end up on a level playing field, it's clear there are two equally viable ways for media companies to make money. They can use cheap cable originals to drive increased subscriber fees from cable and satellite distributors -- that's the real reason we're seeing more original stuff on cable -- or they can keep creating big-budget broadcast fare that can be sold into syndication, overseas and on DVD for big revenue down the line. That doesn't mean the rise of cable means the end of broadcast -- at least not yet.

Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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