TBS tries virtual advertising

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Detective Lennie Briscoe's coffee cup is up for grabs.

Turner Broadcasting System has reached a deal to allow it to insert virtual product images in reruns of "Law & Order" when the hit show moves to TNT in syndication next month. That means an advertiser can put its product on a desk, in a character's hands, or even brand the precinct's soda machine.

The three-way agreement involves AOL Time Warner's TBS, Princeton Video Image-which developed the virtual product-placement technology-and Studios USA, in conjunction with the show's producers led by Dick Wolf. The deal was initiated by PVI, which received an undisclosed fee for providing the service to TBS.

TBS has had preliminary discussions with several undisclosed advertisers about the product- placement opportunities, people familiar with the deal said, though it is still formulating its sales strategy, including pricing and how it will be offered. It was unclear whether TBS would offer the product-placement opportunities during the upfront sales period. Both TBS and PVI representatives declined to comment.

"Law & Order" will air twice, at 8 p.m. and again at 10 p.m., on TNT after June 5, following the shift from A&E Television Networks. TNT struck a 10-year deal for the series, worth an estimated $800,000 an episode, up from the $155,000 A&E was said to have paid. NBC last week announced that it would air first-run episodes of the show for a 12th season starting next fall, as well as two spinoffs in prime time.

If TBS is successful at inking a deal with an advertiser, it would mark the first time that virtual product placement-where images of products are inserted into scenes to appear as if they were originally part of the setting-has been used in a scripted show (drama or comedy) in the U.S., according to PVI. A PVI subsidiary has used the technology successfully for a Mexican soap opera.

PVI has tried for several years to take its technology, which has been used widely to insert ad messages as part of sports broadcasts, and find ways to use it in syndicated versions of scripted shows. A deal with Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution two years ago that could have brought the technology to syndicated shows such as "Friends" and "Drew Carey" never materialized. Currently, PVI is in discussions with other syndication companies such as Carsey-Werner and 20th Century Television about using its technology.

Although there are no ads for the service as yet, opportunities include branding the soda machine in the police station or the coffee cups the detectives drink from. Product placement of the non- virtual variety has been a marketing staple for years, from James Bond characters driving BMWs to Neve Campbell's character on Fox's former "Party of Five" holding a Dr Pepper.

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