Networks Becoming More Receptive to Brands in Scripted Shows

Success of 'The Office' Spurring Trend Toward Product-Laden Plots

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LOS ANGELES -- Not too long ago, the major TV networks would say no to producers pitching them concepts for new shows that had brands already attached to them. Network executives said they wanted to broker the sponsorship deals themselves through their ad-sales or brand-integration divisions, guaranteeing that most of the marketing dollars would go into the networks' and not the producers' pockets.
TBS' part-scripted, part-improv comedy called "10 Items or Less" is filled with branded integrations that are part of the story lines.

But there was just one problem: The networks didn't necessarily have the projects to plug brands into.

That's beginning to change.

Created by ad execs

In the latest development cycle, broadcasters such as NBC and CBS and cable networks are picking up projects ripe for branded integration and sponsorships from the start -- workplace settings and scenarios that can be home to a number of well-known marketers. And some shows were created by executives from the advertising world.

An upcoming sitcom called "Split the Difference" is in the works for NBC. It's set at a fictional Manhattan ad agency and follows the ins and outs of creating campaigns for corporate clients.

CBS is considering an addition to its schedule called "Genius Bar." While the name of the show might change to accommodate particular marketers, the concept centers on the geeks who work at an Apple-like computer store and their relationship with the hipsters who populate an Abercrombie & Fitch-type retailer in the same shopping mall. The idea for the show comes from Krishnan Menon, a marketing consultant and former DDB executive who has worked on the iPod and iMac launches and the JetBlue account.

The show, which will be produced by 20th Century Fox Television, lends itself naturally to starring roles for marketers.

"Anytime you have an actual brand, it gives the show a sense of authenticity," said Mark Pearson, senior VP-brand and franchise management at the studio. "And for a new project, the potential to have a brand help you as a marketing partner -- particularly if the brand has consumer touch points that you might not have -- that's an upside."

Talk show that sells products

"IVillage Live," a daily talk show launching next week on Bravo and NBC's 10 owned and operated stations, will work sponsors such as Bally Total Fitness, Estee Lauder, Healthy Choice and Unilever into its on-air segments and offer their products for sale on BBDO North America, following in the footsteps of other agencies, is working on at least two TV series for its client brands, though executives wouldn't give specifics.

Time Warner's TBS network this week launched a part-scripted, part-improv comedy called "10 Items or Less," set in a small-town independent grocery store. Kellogg's Raisin Bran and Unilever's I Can't Believe It's Not Butter will appear in pivotal story points. In one episode, workers wrestle over a box of Raisin Bran "Survivor"-style, with the winner keeping his job and the loser getting fired. Another story has the troubled new store owner looking for solace in the aisles and finding it in I Can't Believe It's Not Butter, which he considers a comfort food.

Other marketers likely will show up as the season progresses.

The current crop of programs signals a new openness on the part of networks, which will give more creative license to writers and producers. It could mean more deals and more real-world brands sewn into shows.

Need brands to tell a story

"Decisions will still be made show by show and network by network," said Lori Sale, head of global branded entertainment at Hollywood talent agency ICM. "But this acknowledges that you can't tell a modern-day story without brands. Movies have been doing it for years, and now maybe TV is starting to realize it more."

What's helped the networks realize the potential for more brand-friendly programming is the success of NBC's "The Office." Set at a fictional Scranton, Pa., paper company, "The Office" has successfully integrated a number of brands in its two seasons, including Staples, Levi's and Chili's.

Yet while everyone involved in the deals says it's more difficult to incorporate marketers into scripted shows, it's becoming more common.

"The challenge with any branded-entertainment deal is making sure the creative comes first," said Linda Yaccarino, Turner Entertainment exec VP-ad sales and marketing, who worked on the "10 Items or Less" integrations. "A grocery store setting allows us plenty of possibilities to create unique opportunities for our ad partners."
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