Welcome (back) to the future of television.
National advertisers are getting into the program-production business, and product placement is being offered as “added value” for network time buys.
ABC’s “The Runner,” the highly anticipated new reality/game series with a 13-episode commitment, appears to be one high-profile example of the new direction being taken in advertiser-friendly programming. The WB’s “No Boundaries,” another reality/adventure game with a 13-episode commitment, seems to be another.
In the era of fragmented audiences and blockbuster budgets, the very practices and relationships that the networks seem to be rushing to embrace harken back to the earliest days of the medium, when advertisers could-and did-control time periods and dictate to programmers.
At ABC’s pre-upfront program-development presentation to the advertisers and their agencies in Los Angeles last week, Lloyd Braun, co-chairman of the ABC Entertainment Group, explained how “The Runner,” executive-produced by actor/writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, will work:
The show will follow a contestant who tries to cross the country within 28 days while performing assigned tasks, called “hits.” The contestant must avoid capture by “licensed agents”-viewers who have registered online and elsewhere to play the game.
The runner might win as much as a $1 million, or the money could go to her or his pursuers.
“Is the runner going to wear Nikes? Is the runner going to wear Reeboks? Is the runner going to wear Adidas? You guys get to decide,” Mr. Braun told the assembled advertisers.
“Operators are standing by to take your calls,” Stu Bloomberg, Mr. Braun’s co-chairman, interjected, just before a fortuitously timed telephone rang off-set.
ABC also will be sending every one of its comedy and drama pilot scripts to the advertisers, something that Mr. Braun characterized as a “little unprecedented.”
Asked after the presentation if sending out pilot scripts would encourage the advertisers to dictate to programmers, Mr. Bloomberg demurred: “No. It’s after the fact,” he said. “We just want people to get a taste [of the network’s development].”
The WB, at its presentation on Warner Bros.’ Burbank, Calif., lot to the same group of ad executives a day earlier, touted “No Boundaries,” its high-profile reality adventure/game that has heavy advertiser participation. That show is being produced by Lions Gate Entertainment, a Canadian production company, and is being financed by the Ford Motor Co.
The promotional tagline for Ford’s line of SUVs is also “No boundaries,” and the company’s SUVs will be prominently featured in the show.
Lions Gate also recently offered for syndication “Who Wants to Date a Hooters Girl?” a proposed series tied in with the Hooters restaurant chain, known as much for its perky waitresses as its bill of fare.
Another example of the new trend: ABC’s daytime “The View” incorporated paid product placements for Campbell’s soups into the show’s entertainment segments. The placement, which created a controversy, was shrugged off by producers as an experiment. The producer was reported as saying last November: “We’re willing to plug shamelessly, but we have limits. The integrity of the show has to be maintained.”
These practices are being challenged by some media advocacy groups.
“The Chinese wall between advertisers and programmers is being obliterated,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Media Education, who likened the current climate to that which existed in the 1950s, before the quiz show scandals at the end of that decade changed public attitudes toward advertisers’ influences on TV.
“Ford should think twice before betraying the trust of the American people,” he said of “No Boundaries.” Mr. Chester also was critical of ABC’s invitation to shoe companies to buy placement on “The Runner.”
According to Andrew Schwartzman, who heads the Washington-based Media Access Project, a nonprofit public-interest law firm specializing in media-related issues, Section 317 of the Communications Act of 1934 “requires that the true sponsor of a program be fully and fairly identified.”
He also charged that in some instances “middlemen”-such as set dressers-are paid money by advertisers to place products in shows, a practice that, he said, “rather clearly” violates Section 317.