Cable Takes to Product Tie-Ins

On Cram, the Game Show Network's latest original game show, sleep-deprived contestants are ferried from an all-night study session to the set in the "Cram Car," and it's clear what kind of car it is: a Saturn Ion decked with the network's logo. Saturn, of course, is a major advertiser on the show.

Broadcast networks aren't the only ones trying to woo advertisers with product placements, integrating their products or logos into the content of a program. As broadcasters increasingly slip logos into reality shows and dramas, cable networks are following suit, particularly in game, reality and lifestyle shows.

"The goal is to integrate naturally," said Michael Sakin, Game Show's ad sales chief. "Games have always used products. Now we're just using them in a modern way."

On Cram,
contestants—who stay awake all night preparing for the next day's competition—needed transportation, and Saturn's sponsorship was an easy fit. The Ion gets about 15 seconds of airtime per episode and is worked into some questions. Game Show has signed automaker Suzuki for original Whammy: The All New Press Your Luck.

Whatever the genre or niche, network sales execs and media buyers agree that product placements need to be subtle and well matched: Screaming advertisements could cause viewers to flee.

Increasingly, though, cable networks are weaving product tie-ins into media deals. "It's an enhancement, a reward for a media commitment, not in place of one," said Discovery Networks' new Ad Sales President Joe Abruzzese.

On TLC's Trading Spaces, redecorators use supplies from Lowe's home-improvement store. In ABC Family reality show My Life as a Sitcom, a family chows down on KFC. Court TV is exploring product placement for documentary The Great Gardner Art Heist, perhaps giving investigators a particular brand of computer or wireless phone as they hunt a $300 million cache of stolen art.

Abruzzese, who engineered product placement on Survivor
when he headed CBS's ad sales, warns that shows with poorly placed products "get overexposed and watered down and can become offensive to the viewers."

Instead, advised Starcom Entertainment's Kathryn Thomas, "the product needs to be necessary and organic to moving the storyline forward."

One of the most aggressive in using product placement is Fox Sports Net. Its Best Damn Sports Show
features a bar area sponsored by Labatts (previously branded by Mike's Hard Lemonade); a back deck will bear the Home Depot name, and Lincoln Aviators will cart guests and hosts around. Even so, says Fox Sports Cable Executive Vice President of Ad Sales Guy Sousa, moderation is key: "We don't do it every day. Imagine how forced it would feel."

Broadcast networks can clearly offer larger audiences and more exposure. But cable has advantages, too. Most cable programmers and marketers wield a heavier hand in show production, making it easier to tie in products. Cable channels are free to strike deals without battling with news execs who fret over commercial conflicts. And niche networks offer more-pinpointed demographics.

In a tight and crowded advertising market, "cable networks need to be creative with types of deals," said Stacey Shepatin, vice president/director of national broadcast for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Boston-based Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos.

Scripps Networks' HGTV and Food Network would seem a natural fit, but the company passes on product tie-ins. "We don't want to deteriorate the real value of those programs," said Executive Vice President of Ad Sales Steve Gigliottti.

On new diginets DIY and Fine Living, Scripps does allow advertisers to get products into vignettes between shows "to get a little closer to the content," said Gigliottti.

One deterrent for cable nets: Product placement may reduce shows' shelf life. On broadcast, much of the product placement is on reality shows, which don't have much of an afterlife in syndication. Cable channels rely more on repeating programs to fill out the schedule and amortize production costs. Products can become outdated or deter other advertisers from buying traditional ad time.

New technology is making product placement more evergreen. Physical products can be edited out to create a "virgin tape," as one network exec said, and companies like Princeton Video Imaging offer virtual product placement, in which images can be edited and swapped.