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CBS' next big promotional tie-in is with MCI Communications Corp. and it's going to be a real joke.

Actually, it will be four jokes: one each from different CBS comedy stars participating in an interactive promotion that will enable viewers to send personalized versions of the jokes to friends courtesy of MCI.

Dubbed the "MCI/CBS Send-A-Laugh Network!" the effort will be promoted on CBS' prime-time, daytime and late-night programs for three weeks in March, coinciding with new executions of MCI's "Best Friends" campaign.

Viewers will be alerted that if they call an 800-number, they can hear a joke from either "Love & War's" Annie Potts, "The Nanny's" Fran Drescher, "Dave's World's" Meshach Taylor or "Evening Shade's" Michael Jeter.

After hearing the recording, callers can forward the same joke, plus a personalized greeting, to a friend by entering the phone number and the time the message should be delivered.

"We are using this promotion to build relationships," said Thomas Kilcoyne, VP-marketing communications at MCI.

He said the promotion is a logical extension of MCI's evolving marketing campaigns designed to reposition the phone service as a relationship-building device.

Although the current flight of "Best Friends" ads from MCI agency Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York, uses poignant vignettes, Mr. Kilcoyne said new creative will be introduced by March emphasizing the humor in relationships between best friends.

Mr. Kilcoyne said MCI is also demonstrating some of its unique telephone services, such as the call forwarding technology involved in the promotion.

Although the promotion is free, callers will be asked whether they want to hear more about MCI services from a sales representative. If they follow up on that offer, they will receive a free premium from CBS, a special videotape collection of classic CBS comedies like "I Love Lucy" and "The Honeymooners," valued at $29.95.

Mr. Kilcoyne said it is not MCI's plan to build a database via the promotion but to expose people to MCI's services.

"Every promotion we do is about building relationships," said George Schweitzer, senior VP-marketing and communications of CBS. "We see ourselves building a long-term relationship with MCI from this."

Mr. Schweitzer said the network conceived the event and is backing it with expensive promotion spots in prime-time and daytime shows, as well as "Late Show With David Letterman," because it won a major ad commitment from MCI.

As part of negotiations with the Big 3 networks during the 1993-94 upfront buying season last summer, MCI asked each to submit a concept for a first-quarter promotion marketing tie-in.

"We won the buy and the promotion," Mr. Schweitzer said. He declined to say how much MCI is spending other than it involves "incremental money to CBS."

Mr. Schweitzer said CBS also benefits from the "co-branding" nature of the promotion, which links CBS to an innovative MCI service.

"This promotion doesn't force viewers to watch CBS, but it promotes brand awareness" of CBS' comedies, he said.

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