ABC puts ads on run

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In an unusual partnership with advertisers, ABC is training "The Runner" to be the next big reality program after "Survivor." What's unusual is that products, retail locations and services will be woven into the action of the show. For advertisers that become major sponsors, the exposure could cost them $5 million to $6 million for the 13-episode series, according to media agency executives, about half what the second installment of CBS' "Survivor" is now pulling in.

Already, however, Pepsi-Cola Co. has topped that price, according to agency executives, inking an exclusive $8 million deal for the show which resembles a game of hide-and-seek; a "runner" is sent off across the country with the goal of getting to the other side without being spotted, while completing a number of tasks. The expectation is that Pepsi will heavily promote its Mountain Dew brand, although a Pepsi spokeswoman wouldn't comment on the price it paid and said no decisions were made as to what brand it would promote in the show.

But show producer LivePlanet, where actors Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are partners, has already talked with Pepsi about possibly inserting clues about locating the runner into its commercials. Sean Bailey, chief creative officer of LivePlanet and executive producer of "The Runner," said the producers had discussed with Pepsi the possibility of having the four Mountain Dew Generation-Y hipsters looking to chase the runner in their spots. Omnicom Group's BBDO Worldwide, New York, is Mountain Dew's agency.

ABC is positioning "The Runner" as a major promotional, product placement and advertising platform for the start of the fall season. The hook is $1 million in cash, awarded to the runner completing the tasks. But it doesn't end there. Anyone in the U.S. can capture the runner, and whoever does will receive a cash prize up to $1 million. If and when that occurs, another runner will be released. To build interest, ABC is using the Internet as an integral tool to give viewers hints to the runner's whereabouts.

ABC executives believe the push will create tremendous viewer tune-in for its entire fall programming schedule, as "The Runner" will be promoted throughout the day, possibly with live promotional updates. Additionally, information and hints will be given in and around its ABC network "bug" logo that now appears on the screen during ABC's prime time show.

For advertisers, ABC is developing a full marketing program. For example, a runner's task could be to order in a McDonald's Corp. restaurant without being seen. A camera would be set up in the McDonald's to document the activity.


Of the 25 to 30 tasks the runner needs to accomplish, Mike Shaw, president-advertising sales and marketing for ABC Television Network, estimates about eight or so will be connected to ad deals. "The advertiser is going be a big part of the [show's] details," said Mr. Shaw. "They are going to be on screen for the while." The remaining tasks will send the runner to places such as parks and zoos.

With the exception of "Survivor," previous reality shows have gone wanting for major sponsorship due to the weak ad market, or because of risky content. Fox's "Temptation Island" and "Boot Camp" are in the later category.

Some ad executives are concerned that ABC could be pushing too much commercialism, which could backfire with viewers. That contention, however, was disputed by Larry Blasius, senior VP-director-national broadcast for True North Communications' TN Media, New York. "They seem to be making a good effort to integrate advertisers," he said.

Contributing: Hillary Chura

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