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Ad Agency, ABC Link Up

What's good for ABC's advertisers must be good for ABC, too, so the network is partnering with MindShare North America, a leading ad-buying firm, which will help develop scripted programs for the network with its clients in mind.

MindShare, or its clients, which include Sears, Unilever and other major advertisers, will help fund script development for potential series. If the show gets all the way to air, they'll help pay to produce it and advertise within it. If it gets to syndication, ABC holds distribution rights, but MindShare and clients would participate in back-end profit.

How many shows can MindShare help bring to ABC? "There's no limit," said Alex Wallau, president of the network. "I think, at this point, we want to just be able to do one show well." Advertiser involvement in a program's genesis, he said, might give advertisers new appreciation for how hard it is to craft 22 series episodes every season. "I think it's the hardest thing to do in the creative field."

According to MindShare CEO Marc Goldstein, there's no timetable for getting a show on the air, and both he and Wallau seemed to doubt that the agency, a unit of WPP Group PLC, would have a project ready for next fall's schedule. The objective, Goldstein said, is to get "advertiser involvement in programs earlier in the process."

MindShare hired Peter Tortorici, former president of CBS Entertainment and the Telemundo Network, to work with the agency and clients to develop shows.

Five seasons ago, The WB's Gilmore Girls
was developed by an advertiser group called the Family Friendly Programming Forum. But the idea of an advertiser developing and partially owning a program is a resurrection of sorts, of the way television worked in its infancy, when shows like NBC's Texaco Star Theater
were clearly sponsor-driven.

The MindShare-ABC deal also integrates product-placement issues right into the production process, although both said that's not the centerpiece of the deal. "The focus on this agreement is that a successful scripted show will have a long shelf life with much value to the advertiser," Goldstein said. "The added value may be product placement, but that's the tail wagging the dog."

Both ABC and MindShare are open to similar deals with other partners, the executives said.

Outside ABC, some were intrigued. "They are willing to take a risk and change the way they approach the business and try something new," said The WB President and COO of Jed Petrick. "You have to applaud that."

Observed Fox President of Sales Jon Nesvig, "If I'm a network, I'd hate to give away the upside to a successful show, which sounds like it could happen here. But we're always talking with our customers and trying to figure out ways we might do business a little differently and help advertisers reach consumers."

Additional reporting by Paige Albiniak