Madison + Vine: Brands get role in new ABC show

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Undeterred by the early cancellation of "Push, Nevada," ABC is teeing up another scripted program for midseason in March that integrates brands into storylines.

The twist, according to Michael Jacobs, executive producer of the new sitcom "Lost at Home," is that the brands are integrated into the show through the writing process and not through any formal negotiations with marketers. Mr. Jacobs said if the eight-episode run works and ABC picks up the show, produced by Walt Disney Co. sibling Touchstone, for a second season, he could envision marketers being given input into scripts and storylines.

`Nice Icing'

"Lost At Home" is about a workaholic ad agency executive, who after sacrificing family for career, decides to reprioritize his life. Gregory Hines stars as the head of the agency that handles Bayer's Midol, Timberland and Volvo Cars North America. "The show will not be defined" by brand integration, said Mr. Jacobs. "It will live or die by its own [organic creative] merit. But this is nice icing. We do talk about the actual merits of a real product and that hasn't been seen before. In effect, the writers are coming up with fictional campaigns for real brands."

The three initial brands in the series don't have a significant network TV presence. The marketers were made aware of their brands' association with the show after the fact and none of them raised a red flag, according to Mr. Jacobs.

Mr. Jacobs is represented by Endeavor and said he is open to working with Jimmy Yaffe, who runs the talent agency's corporate-marketing unit, to enlist brands. Mr. Jacobs said if the show becomes a hit, thought would be given to creating a group that would, in effect, operate as a guerrilla ad agency in combination with a brand's marketing team to work on the brand's integration into the story.

The question is whether that will fly with a network that has always taken a tough stance in terms of keeping packaging agents at bay.

script approval

ABC Entertainment Group Chairman Lloyd Braun and Mike Shaw, ABC's president-sales and marketing, could not be reached for comment. An ABC spokesman said formal deals would need approval of ABC sales. The spokesman went on to say that although the initial advertisers may not have a problem with their brands being written into the first season, the producers would still require script approval from ABC's programming department as well as its sales unit.

"A brand that associates with and is built into the episodes of a show may have an adverse impact on the sales department selling to competitors in that brand's category," said Marc Goldstein, CEO of WPP Group's MindShare North America.

So how is someone like "Survivor" producer Mark Burnett able to persuade CBS to let him stack his show with prominent brand integration while Mr. Jacobs seems to face an uphill climb doing the same thing?

keeping it real

"Brand integration into reality programs requires much plotting and planning and the network sales team takes the lead in orchestrating it with the advertisers and the producer," said Laura Caraccioli-Davis, VP-director SMG Entertainment at Starcom MediaVest Group. "In scripted shows, the sales force is largely taken out of the loop."

"I started thinking about storylines and I realized the last thing I want to do is create bogus products," Mr. Jacobs said. He said he became aware of the increased emphasis on product placement with the advent of personal-video-recorder technology, but maintains his intention was not to package the show based on securing a sponsor or advertiser.

Mr. Yaffe backs him up. "Here's an award-winning producer who respects brand marketing and has found a way of integrating products to enhance his business, as opposed to some who integrate product to capitalize on money. For Michael, it's all about the purity of the integration."

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