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Integrating ads a hot TV topic

Nets still queasy about inserting sponsors

LAS VEGAS — The issue of integrating advertising into program content yielded one of the largest audiences for any session at NATPE, with “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett insisting Hollywood “shouldn’t be scared” of such alliances and Bravo prexy Jeff Gaspin calling the inexorable expansion of such relationships “a matter of time.”

Although sponsors are widely used in unscripted programs such as Burnett’s “The Restaurant,” nets have been more uneasy about incorporating them into the development of scripted fare.

Still, Burnett said he and screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart are developing a drama for NBC in concert with a major sponsor. Robert Riesenberg of ad agency Omnicom said he’s involved with a similar arrangement on a limited summer dramatic series with one of his clients.

Even Burnett acknowledged some pitfalls in such programming, noting that he delivered rough cuts to, and received production notes from, seven different parties on “The Restaurant,” which had major tie-ins with American Express, Coors and Mitsubishi. “If it seems forced and fake, it will come back to (bite) us. … I think we learned that subtle is better.”

Burnett’s partner on the project, Reveille CEO Ben Silverman, added that network sales departments still remain resistant to some sponsorship arrangements, particularly on the scripted side of the equation, fearing that they will siphon away sales.

Still, Burnett said, life is “full of compromises” and given the challenging economics of the business, “there are no rules” about finding new ways to finance programming.

Burnett also took issue with Mindshare exec Irwin Gottlieb’s comments the day before that unscripted programming in the U.S. had become too expensive. U.S. auds, the producer noted, have come to expect certain production values.

Beyond the labyrinthine negotiations that frequently characterize sponsor tie-ins — among them whether such shows won’t be attractive to competing advertisers should they survive into syndication — public watchdog groups, such as Consumer Alert, have been pushing for more stringent guidelines on labeling product placement within shows.

In addition, producers worry about excessive intrusion by sponsors into the creative process — a bias all the panelists maintained the production community must overcome.

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