USA playing Virgin’s tune

Label to provide music for hit shows

Product placement meets licensing in an unusual deal for USA Network.

The cable net has signed Virgin Records as the exclusive provider of music for all on-air marketing.

Instead of licensing music separately for promos of hit shows like “The 4400,” “Monk” and “Law & Order: SVU,” net will exclusively use Virgin artists.

In return, Virgin gets significant product placement on the net through the music itself as well as info about artists that will pop up onscreen during promo spots and interstitial content.

The innovative deal suggests the bold possibility of sponsors garnering product placement by trading services, like permissions, for airtime.

A section of the USA Web site will be dedicated to Virgin artists and steer traffic to the label. Pact could also lead to USA offering ringtones for Virgin artists and other new-media content, execs said, which would suggest that new platforms are extending beyond usual suspects like MTV to other nets.

“We realized we have a lot of airtime and a lot of reach,” said USA senior VP of marketing and brand strategy Chris McCumber, “and we thought, wouldn’t a record company want to try to use that?”

Terms were not disclosed, but McCumber calls the pact “almost a barter deal.”

Unlike a traditional licensing pact, this deal solves very different problems for each party.

For USA, it allows a cable net that’s pouring more money into original programming to save money on the escalating costs of licensing.

For Virgin, it offers a new type of product placement for its artists at a time when traditional spots can be expensive and ineffective.

This is also the first known instance in which a network has committed to using one label for all its music, though the WWE, whose “Monday Night Raw” actually airs on USA, has a deal with Sony Music. The pact will not affect music used in programming.

Pact resembles a movie output deal in that it makes an entire catalog available to a network. It goes further than a traditional output deal, however, and ensures no other record company will have music featured in the net’s spots.

Move is part of USA’s larger effort at branding; net launched ShowUsYourCharacter, a MySpace-ish attempt to attract user-generated content and give the general-interest cabler greater brand identity. Music from the Virgin deal will appear in some of the on-air interstitial programming that follows some of the people from larger “Characters Welcome” campaign around the country.

Virgin, part of the British-based EMI Group, has a number of established artists such as Janet Jackson, Fountains of Wayne, Gorillaz and the Rolling Stones, as well as newer musicians like We Are Scientists, KT Tunstall and 30 Seconds to Mars.

USA has made a foray into promoting lesser-known artists on TV before. Net leased airtime to producers for the turn-of-the-century skein “Farm Club,” a high-profile effort at synergy with a digital-music Web site that was meant to give unknown artists more mainstream exposure.

That show quickly went off the air. But McCumber said the integration will give a boost that show didn’t, and also said that further into the partnership the emerging artists themselves could be featured on the air. “We have a lot of time to play with,” he said.

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