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December 10, 2003

TV: The Pies The Limit

In the old days, the difference between a television show and a commercial was as distinct as pepperoni and mushroom. (Even if a show was sponsored by someone like Texaco or Hallmark, it was easy to sort out the branding from the program’s other ingredients). In the past week, however, the forces attempting to turn television programs into cheesy advertising platforms or flat-out infomercials have helped themselves to some disturbing accomplishments.

For starters, the Nielsen company, which provides ratings research to broadcasters and advertisers, announced a new service designed specifically to track product placements on prime-time shows. Beginning in February, the company plans to sell data on they number and type of viewers who have seen specific products–be it cars, cell phones or pizza–planted in various television programs.

In addition, an extra large effort is now underway to develop programs that are either built around products or feature a particular companies products and brands. Last week, MindShare North America, a unit of the giant WPP Advertising Group, announced an agreement with ABC to create new recipes for product placement and advertising sponsorship. On the surface, the deal might not seem that ground breaking. However, it raises a number of disturbing precedents. In a major alliance between television producers and advertisers–one which blurs the boundaries between the traditional client relationship–the emphasis is on cooking up shows which revolve around products, as opposed to the other way around.

Another venue where ads seem to be moving from appetizer to main course is at the movie theatre. According to adrants.com, Regal Entertainment Group will shortly replace those static slide advertisements that flash on the screen before the movie begins with a full 20 minutes of branded video. To be shown before the coming attractions, this "pre-show show" will feature promo segments provided by NBC, TBS, and Vivendi Universal Entertainment in addition to made-for-cinema advertisements. Regal will be serving up this shaky scheme to patrons in 340 theatres across more than 4,000 screens.

Finally, we couldn’t step away from the table without a short update on Congress and the ongoing FCC/Media Ownership imbroglio. Earlier this week, Congress adjourned for the year without passing a final spending bill. One key reason for the impasse: The Republicans tried to sneak through a provision to allow the television networks to own stations that reach 39% of the national audience, up from the current maximum 35%. If you recall, Congress took the unusual step a few months ago of stepping in and reversing the FCC’s decision, engineered by Chairman Michael Powell, (see: the Michael Powell "Conservatives Most Wanted" BAGnews cartoon) to raise the limit to 45%.

TV Then

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And Now

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