In some cases advertisers or their agencies cover all production costs themselves, offering free content in exchange for putting their products at center stage — and even at times the agencies pocketing a share of the show's ad sales.
NBC's The Restaurant, this summer's six-episode reality show about a New York bistro, is the first prime-time series in decades produced in part by an ad agency, the Interpublic Group of Cos. One executive producer credit goes to an agency suit: Robert Riesenberg, who heads up production unit Magna Global Entertainment.
Interpublic shouldered the show's $1 million-per-episode cost, then recouped it by selling half of the ad slots to three clients. NBC got a free show and the other half of the commercial time. The three advertisers — Mitsubishi, Coors Light and American Express — also had supporting roles.
In the show's quick-cut opening credits, star chef Rocco DiSpirito drives a Mitsubishi SUV, kitchen staff lug a case of Coors Light and an American Express card flashes by in a close-up. In one episode DiSpirito, unable to pay staff, taps his AmEx account, telling an employee, "Just go to the AmEx Open account." In another he tries to boost employee morale by throwing a beach party, where Coors Light flows freely. "People get the joke," says Benjamin Silverman, who produced the show with Interpublic and Survivor Svengali Burnett.
Next up from the Interpublic shop: House Rules, airing on TBS next month, in which couples vie to remodel the perfect home. Lowe's is funding the show's costs.
But network execs insist product cameos will always get second billing to commercials. "These integrated packages are a fact of life, but they're not going to take over our schedule," says Jon Nesvig, president of sales for Fox Broadcasting. "The viewer can take only so much."
A Tricky Pursuit
Reality shows' anything-goes conceit makes it easy to insert brands and products, but now they are creeping into fictional fare. This summer NBC, as part of an ad pact with Avon, wove Avon's new Mark line into episodes of its daytime soap Passions. A character became a Mark sales rep, delighting her parents.
Ford is sponsoring this fall's commercial-free premiere of 24, a gripping terrorist drama on Fox, and getting long-form ads before or afterward and a role for the new Ford F-150. "The truck makes Jack look more like a hero," enthuses Richard Stoddart, a Ford marketing manager.
Next spring Vivendi Universal's SciFi channel will air Five Days Till Midnight, a whodunit miniseries; up to 10 sponsors that buy ads for the four or five episodes get to place products into the plot.
But it's a tricky pursuit, one that could interfere with story lines and scare away competing brands that otherwise might advertise on a show. "We are very sensitive to the potential of overcommercialization" says Chuck B. Fruit, a senior vice president at Coca-Cola.
"It's kind of creepy to suddenly see various products within your set," says Caryn Mandabach, a partner in Carsey-Werner-Mandabach, which produces That '70s Show for Fox and the newcomer Whoopi, set for NBC. Last spring her firm, along with producer Burnett, sold the WB a pilot for a sitcom that followed an American family motoring around Europe. Part of the pitch: plenty of opportunity to feature cars or credit cards. It never aired.
Not to worry — lots more come-ons are coming your way.
For more, go to Forbes.com..