Where the product is co-star

Debuting next weekend on The WB is the latest outdoor reality series No Boundaries,
which might be the way some cynics describe its advertising structure.

The series may have all the ingredients to become the next big reality hit, but its real story is that it is sponsored by Ford and its title is also the two-year-old marketing theme behind the automaker's line of sport utility vehicles.

In an age of product placement and unique advertising concepts, No Boundaries
is taking the level of ad sponsorship back to the days when Milton Berle fronted for Texaco Star Theater.
with personal video recorders like TiVo giving viewers the chance to zap commercials before they even get a chance to ignore them, advertisers and networks are increasingly intrigued by deft product placement within programs themselves. How far down that road networks and advertisers want to go may depend on how well No Boundaries
performs in Nielsen ratings.

"Ford was involved with this show from the outset, and they were very committed to the philosophy and what would be the core of No Boundaries
as a show," says Brady Connell, one of the show's executive producers and a former director on Survivor
and Eco-Challenge.

Advertising giant J. Walter Thompson brought series producer Lions Gate Television and Ford together a year ago. The reality series features 15 contestants battling the elements on a 2,000-mile trek to the Arctic Circle and uses a number of different Ford SUVs every week.

Ford has also committed to running an unspecified number of commercials during the 13-week series.

"This was really in line with what we are trying to accomplish, and it gave [Lions Gate] another avenue to try to produce the show," says Curt Jaksen, of J. Walter Thompson.

Ford and J. Walter Thompson are currently talking with several Hollywood studios and networks about making the newly remodeled Thunderbird a central element in a new or existing series. (The original T-bird was featured in ABC's 77 Sunset Strip
detective show from 1958 to 1964.) Jaksen wouldn't discuss that but did allow that "we are looking for unconventional opportunities to build the Ford brand."

The WB snapped up No Boundaries
more than a year ago, says President Jed Petrick, to stockpile reality programming in case of a writers and actors strike.

He says product tie-ins have to be done correctly or they can kill a show. "Product placement has to be hidden. If it's in your face, then it's going to backfire. I think the minute the viewing public starts to smell they are being sold in the program is the minute those programs begin to fail. But we are continually looking for good ideas, and we are always talking to advertisers and media buyers about different ways to sponsor shows."

Some top executives at other networks say they are definitely open to product placement but naming a show with one specific advertiser may not always work.

"If we did a show with Ford, and GM is already buying three times as much advertising, we could run into a number of problems," says a top network executive. "We wouldn't want to piss off GM."

Executives at cell-phone maker Nokia, which was the sole sponsor on the debut episode of ABC's Alias
this season and has a product-placement deal with the series, say they are looking into a number of unique advertising opportunities.

"Our phone has almost become a character on Alias, and that has worked out very well for us," says Nokia spokesman Keith Nowak. "So any opportunities that present themselves like that we will always be interested in. As for sponsoring an entire show, it's one of those things we would probably have to see before we did something like that."