Video Games Score Placement in Prime-Time TV

'Heroes,' Other Shows Integrate Titles, Often at No Cost to Game Makers

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RALEIGH, N.C. -- Video-game makers have long turned to, and been inspired by, Hollywood movies. But lately, more and more TV series, such as "Lost," "24," "The Office" and "Heroes," are being licensed by game publishers. And the networks themselves, knowing they need to attract that game-playing -- and advertiser-coveted -- 18- to 34-year-old demographic, have begun incorporating game titles into their programming.
An entire episode of 'South Park' was built around Guitar Hero III.
An entire episode of 'South Park' was built around Guitar Hero III.

Last fall on NBC's hit series "Heroes," fans were able to see the Sony PlayStation 3 game "Heavenly Sword" being played by actor Noah Gray-Cabey -- a good six months before the fighting game was released this past summer. Nina Kristensen, co-founder of developer Ninja Theory, said NBC Universal called Sony Computer Entertainment and asked for a game that could be integrated into the show. For its freshman hit "Chuck," which currently airs before "Heroes," NBC has taken advantage of the built-in product-placement opportunities that the show's fictional Buy More store provides. Microsoft had its game franchise "Gears of War" in the show's first two episodes and its blockbuster "Halo 3" in the third episode.

'Incredibly proactive'
"When the scripted scenes called for gaming integration, our product-placement agency, Norm Marshall & Associates, was incredibly proactive about securing these spots for us," said Jennifer Knueppel, marketing manager-music, entertainment and radio, Microsoft. "While most of the scenes [in 'Chuck'] weren't Xbox specific, we're finding that the show creators are continuing to use our brand in gaming scenes."

Activision, which saw its "Call of Duty 3" appear as a central plot line in an episode of "The Office" last season, also identified "Chuck" early on as the perfect target for game placement.

"The lead character talks about 'Call of Duty' in the pilot and we thought that either the writers or the actor must like the franchise to use it in the script, which is really important when integrating a product into a show," said Tabitha Hayes, senior global brand manager, "Call of Duty." "At that point, Connective Tissue and MediaVest then started conversations with Warner Bros. and NBC and they both agreed that 'Call of Duty 4' would be a great fit for the show."

Activision's top mass-market game franchise, "Guitar Hero III," has already been featured in "Chuck," "Gossip Girl," "Cavemen" and "My Name Is Earl." In addition, an entire episode of "South Park" was built around the music-rhythm game.

Ms. Hayes said that while the use of product integration and branded entertainment is increasing in the video-game industry, she believes it is still in its infancy. She said the key is creating integrations that are organic in nature, fit the demographic of the TV show and are entertaining for the consumer.

Ms. Knueppel said all of the Microsoft game integrations have been done at no cost to the game makers. The placements come about from specific script needs months in advance of when the show airs. She said advertising spots for any games are handled separately from product placement.

Nets hope for payout
"With network commercial time being squeezed out by DVRs and other entertainment pastimes, many of the networks were hoping for a big paycheck for these types of game integrations, but it hasn't happened yet," Ms. Knueppel said. "The majority of the scenes thus far have been very organic and don't feel like paid spots because the actors or writers are real gamers. Caressa Lupold at [Norm Marshall] has long-standing relationships on most of the sets, and her team works really hard to make sure that the placements fit the shows creatively and makes sense from our brand perspective."

Ms. Hayes said Activision knows which outlets will allow the company to target hard-core gamers, but being in a hit TV show with a strong 18-34 male demographic allows game makers to broaden their reach and share their products with a more casual consumer that maybe only buy the top few games each year.

"Another benefit to being in a hit TV show is that the networks invest a lot of money promoting hit shows and driving viewership, thus increasing our reach," Ms. Hayes said. "We also have the added benefit of associating our product with another popular entertainment medium."

Although not a game, Second Life was recently involved in a unique integration with CBS' "CSI: New York." An episode of the show began in the real world and ended with viewers solving the case interactively in the online world. Quincy Smith, president, CBS Interactive, said 100,000 viewers logged onto after the show aired to solve the mystery. Cisco Systems, which had products featured on the show, came to CBS with the idea and paid for the crossover.

"Incorporating the nature of gaming into television programming is a trend and CBS is responding to the record number of people who are playing games," Mr. Smith said.

Gadi Pollack, producer of Ubisoft's 2008 release "Lost: the Videogame," believes that in the future, there will be even more collaboration between TV and games.

"Studios are beginning to invest more time and money into video games," Mr. Pollack said. "In the past couple of years we have seen huge activity from the large media groups into games because it extends their brands and can be a very profitable market if done right."

As a result, more games will be making cameos, if not starring appearances, in hit TV shows catering to gamers and more TV shows will be migrating to gaming consoles and PCs.
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