Improving Product Placement

Apr 21, 2003  •  Post A Comment

TBS Superstation has commissioned its first reality game show, a prime-time series tentatively titled House Rules that will turn home improvement into a competition.
The show is expected to be sponsored by the Lowe’s home-improvement chain and will include extensive product placement. Additional sponsors will be brought on board in categories other than home improvement. House Rules launches this fall with a commitment of 13 one-hour episodes. The deal was set up by ad giant Magna Global.
Turner is expected to formally unveil its new reality game show during its upfront presentation to advertisers April 29, when it addresses its programming plans for both TBS and its sister network Turner Network Television.
In other Turner Broadcasting System news, the company is mulling the launch of a U.S. version of CNX, the Cartoon network service that was successfully spun off from Cartoon Network in the United Kingdom. With its mix of action, adventure and anime CNX is targeted to 16- to 34-year-old males.
The network also describes itself as for “adrenaline junkies” and for the “wired-up, fired-up generation,” is “on the list” of new opportunities for the company, but “not imminent,” said Mark Lazarus, the former head of Turner Entertainment ad sales and Turner Sports who was named head of the entire Entertainment Group in a recent restructuring.
The ad presentation later this month represents the first upfront under a new regime led by Turner Broadcasting Systems Chairman and CEO Philip Kent.
In his first major act in the new position, Mr. Kent restructured the company, creating three new units-Entertainment, News and Animation-with the head of each new unit having direct oversight of programming, marketing, advertising sales and other business functions.
“Phil created a structure here that replicates the one he created for Turner International,” Mr. Lazarus said.
At Turner International, too, programming, sales, marketing, distribution and business development all report directly to one executive.
At the upfront presentation, TNT is not expected to announce a new original series but will instead reinforce the message that its existing focus on big-ticket sports, original films and high-profile acquired series such as Law & Order is working and delivering big, demographically desirable audiences.
“TNT has a lot of original programming,” Mr. Lazarus said, making the argument that Madison Avenue is hearing, “and it’s called sports. It’s a huge investment and a big part of our strategy.”
As for original scripted series, “We will be in the game, in development and production of original dramatic series,” Mr. Lazarus said. “We’re talking to other parts of our company as well as other companies on how best to do go through this development process.”
The goal at TNT is to have an original scripted dramatic series on-air for summer 2004, Mr. Lazarus said. To that end, some of the original movies that TNT is airing in the new season will be backdoor pilots. Spinning off series from successful TV movies is one strategy TNT may use to develop new series, Mr. Lazarus said.
The other big potential direction at the Turner networks is to go to fellow AOL Time Warner companies such as HBO, The WB and Warner Bros. Television.
America Online is another area of the vast media company that may contribute to Turner series development, according to David Levy, the new head of Turner Entertainment Sales and Marketing and Turner Sports. Like Mr. Kent, Mr. Levy is a former head of Turner International. And like Mr. Lazarus before him, Mr. Levy also oversees Turner’s sports programming acquisitions.
“We are going to look at different sports,” he said. “We are going to take a look at the NFL when it becomes available. We are going to take a look at the Olympics and probably at the NHL as well.”
Mr. Levy reiterated that sports should be considered original programming. “I choose to spend my original programming money, or some of it, on sports, because it works for the brand,” he said. The new Turner International-derived structure, he added, would mean that group heads would know, “If I’m going to acquire a program that does a great rating, but my ad sales force can’t sell it, maybe it’s not so great.”
Late last year, executives of the former regime said the intention was to announce a model for new series at this upfront. But with new management in place, that plan has been put on hold.
The essence of the strategy is “using our various company partners,” a Turner spokeswoman said. “We just don’t have it hammered out.”
“The underlying message is that we will be working with our sister companies to see if there’s something we should be doing together,” Mr. Lazarus said. “But that won’t exclude working outside the family. And we will absolutely be in the original series game for both networks.”
No single individual has been tasked to be the series-development liaison from Turner to the rest of the AOL Time Warner empire. “That will fall to the senior management of the Entertainment Group,” Mr. Lazarus said.
So in addition to repurposed-or, as TBS prefers to call them, multiplexed-series airing both on The WB and on one of the cable networks, following the Charmed model, expect TNT and TBS to look into development projects rejected by The WB and HBO.
Under the new regime, cooperation among divisions might be easier than it was previously.
Mr. Kent, Mr. Lazarus and Mr. Levy are generally regarded as part of the re-ascendant Turner Old Guard faction, composed of executives who came up the Turner ranks when the company was headed by its founder, Ted Turner. Mr. Turner was widely regarded as antagonistic toward Mr. Kent’s predecssor, Jamie Kellner, who founded The WB before heading TBS. In fact, at one time Mr. Turner proposed selling The WB. At Turner in Atlanta, Mr. Kellner was regarded by some as a proponent of Hollywood show-business values, while Mr. Turner was regarded as the guardian of CNN and its traditional news values.
At its upfront, TNT also will take advertisers through its package of eight telefilms and its two annual specials, The SAG Awards and Christmas in Washington. The 2003-2004 film slate includes a new version of Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl, starring Jeff Daniels and Patricia Heaton (Everybody Loves Raymond) and directed by Richard Benjamin; Bad Apple, starring Chris Noth (Sex and the City); Caesar, also starring Mr. Noth, along with the late Richard Harris and Christopher Walken; Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, starring Rob Lowe (The West Wing), Rutger Hauer and James Cromwell; Night Over Water, based on the Ken Follette book; Word of Honor, based on the Nelson DeMille book Wilder Days; and A Winning Season, which has not yet been cast.
The TBS slate for the new season has 13 original films, including National Lampoon’s Thanksgiving Family Reunion and Evil Never Dies.
“The news from our perspective is to remind people that we have a significant slate of these movies that do very well when we put them on,” Mr. Lazarus said.
The Boy Next Door, the high-profile project from the producing team responsible for Chicago, is still in early development and not on the 2003-04 slate.
`Natural’ Product Placement
House Rules will feature extensive “natural” product placement for Lowe’s, the home-improvement chain that’s already the presenting sponsor for TBS’s Man Made Movies franchise, according to the network. The series will be produced by Evolution Film & Tape, which was Endemol’s producing partner on the first seasons of Fear Factor and Big Brother. It will turn home improvement into a competition, with three couples renovating three homes and competing each week to win a share of a remodeling allowance to be used to pay for the renovations. Once a week, they will also spy on each other’s progress while hosting potluck dinners for their opponents. Viewers and Lowe’s customers will vote to decide the winning couple.
The development for Rules “started with a combination of Lowe’s and Magna,” said Robert Riesenberg, executive VP and
director of Magna Global Entertainment. “Lowe’s came to us and said they were interested in creating a television show. We created the skeleton of the idea, then we brought in Evolution, the producers, and fleshed it out with them, went back to Lowe’s and Lowe’s approved it. Then we pitched it to Turner.”
Lowe’s will have “weekly exposure” on the series, but details are still being discussed, said Linda Yaccarino, general manager of Turner Entertainment Sales. “It’s not just a programming deal and it’s not just an advertising deal. … It’s going to be online, in-store, off-channel … [and] cross-channel, also utilizing our Time Inc. division. This is big.”
In addition to Rules reality on TBS, Ripley’s Believe or Not is coming back for a fourth season of new episodes.
The strategies going forward for the two big networks-with TNT focusing on drama and TBS focusing on its powerful off-net comedy block and more “varied” entertainment-will remain intact, according to Mr. Lazarus. “We are wildly successful right now with that positioning,” he said.
Casting for Rules on-air talent and location scouting for the competition are still under way.