Monday, November 2, 2009

The Variety Show Ad Method

One of my first jobs in television was on a show called "Pepsi Smash." It was a summer concert series on The WB (back when that network existed) wherein popular groups with popular songs would hop up on a stage in front of an audience full of teens and do a couple of their most popular numbers. I was just a production assistant, so the pay was low and the hours were long. But there was free Pepsi! I drank many a can of Amp during those long days.

When the episodes started airing, I was surprised to discover something they included in the broadcast: commercials. The show had as much time set aside for commercials as you would expect in any other broadcast. Despite the fact that Pepsi's logo was visible at nearly every camera angle, that people said the word "Pepsi" throughout the broadcast, and even that Pepsi was the very name of the show, the broadcast still had additional sponsors. While we were shooting, I'd assumed that the show would air commercial free. You know, like in "the old days," when TV shows like "Texaco Star Theater" were named after their sponsors and didn't take commercial breaks so much as pause to have the star of the show deliver a quick sponsorship message to the camera.

"Pepsi Smash" aired in the summers of 2003 and 2004 -- around the same time that TiVo was digging its foothold into the television landscape. The frightening prospect back then -- all the more real now -- is that viewers could easily skip commercials, thereby negating the entire economic system around which broadcast television is based. Shows like "Pepsi Smash," I assumed, were going to be television's response. You can't TiVo past the name of the show.

It's disheartening to think that some day we might be watching "Kraft General Foods presents 30 Rock" or "AT&T's CSI: NY." But on the other hand, I'd prefer such conspicuous sponsorship awareness rather than the attempted deceit practiced in most forms of product placement. You're watching an episode, and suddenly two of your favorite characters erupt into a conversation about how much they like Oreos. The afore-mentioned "30 Rock" has taken so much heat for their product placement that when a storyline featured Tina Fey's character enjoying a Snuggie, she was compelled to deliver the line: "It's not product placement! I just really like it."

To date, I'm not aware of any sitcom or drama being named after a product. For now, let's assume that won't happen. But when it comes to variety shows, that's been a time-honored way to make money. It's a good fit. And I could see reality shows easily going in that direction.

Which is why I gave a knowing smile and nod when I heard about "Family Guy Presents: Seth and Alex's Almost Live Comedy Show." (That's Seth MacFarlane and Alex Borstein.) The half hour comedy special is set to air commercial-free, with brief pauses for the stars of the show to deliver a message about Microsoft's new Windows 7. Yes, just like the old days.

Well, that was the plan anyway, until Microsoft executives saw the actual content of the show and decided it "didn't fit their brand." (Translation: they're scared that people will be offended and then boycott Microsoft.) This is a rather cowardly move for the company to make, and a situation they could have easily avoided by simply watching other Seth MacFarlane shows. He's not exactly an unknown quantity; he has three shows in current production on Fox, and reruns syndicated all over the place. Have you ever seen any "Family Guy" or "American Dad"? You can't exactly plead ignorance about his comedic sensibilities.

Perhaps this is the reason broadcasters wanted to get away from the single-sponsor model in the first place. It leads to a situation where the sponsor has too much power, and can make or break a show with the snap of a finger. "We don't want people associating our brand with these ideas." And just like that, your integrity is gone.

The "Almost Live Comedy Show" will go on. Fox is seeking another sponsor, and new messages will be recorded and integrated into the show. Seth MacFarlane is far too profitable for Fox to toss away this special just because Microsoft wanted out. This is merely a bump in the road.

The show airs November 8. If it's a hit, it could point the way to exactly what the networks have been looking for: a TiVo-proof way of deliver advertising to viewers.

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