Shows improve approach to product placement

The major networks spent the week flattering media buyers amid scaled-back upfront presentations, telling them how important (and attractive!) they are. Yet the contortions to keep those advertisers happy will succeed only if they can be executed without alienating another constituency: increasingly fickle, demanding, have-it-my-way viewers.

Reflecting TV’s facility for coining terms like “celebreality” and “dramedy,” “podbusting” has started to gain traction as a possible remedy to the ad-buyer blues. More than product placement, less than infomercials, podbusting means moving away from aggregated commercial pods to curb the ad-skipping habit — creating story-form ads that will theoretically neutralize itchy thumbs by resembling program content.

Various networks, including MTV and Discovery, have touted this approach, and the NBC-owned stations are experimenting with it, bookending local news with a two-minute commercial. But will podbusters work if they come to be viewed as “viewer-misleaders,” a slick trick that meshes ads with programming so intricately that you can’t evade them?

More simply, while networks and buyers want to couch such innovations as value-added bits, there’s a chance savvier viewers, protective of their multitasking time, won’t warm to sleight of hand meant to thwart their well-practiced zapmanship.

This much is clear: The TiVo age of digital video recorders continues to bedevil traditional TV models. Even if the technology isn’t spreading rapidly enough to merit “The sky is falling” cries yet — U.S. penetration currently stands at 23%, up from the 17% Nielsen reported a year ago — the clouds ahead look ominous.

Yes, viewers zapping through commercials will stop occasionally, depending on tastes. Personally, half-dressed women and spots for the new Indiana Jones movie tend to work reasonably well.

But that’s about it. Beyond that, with apologies to the toil devoted to producing those 30-second masterpieces, screw you, Madison Ave. We’re finishing “Grey’s Anatomy” in 44 minutes (and when the subplots stink, 34), even if that means waiting till 9:17 p.m. to start watching on nights we’re home.

Understandably mindful of the slow bleed the DVR conundrum presents, everyone in the biz is toying with methods to circumvent it. ABC, for example, plans to experiment with “content elements” inside commercial breaks, thwarting viewer attempts to skip ads. The Alphabet network also discussed making programs available via video-on-demand with fast-forwarding disabled, essentially charging viewers for at-will content by insisting they watch commercials. Fox, meanwhile, will halve the commercial time within its new dramas.

At its upfront, the Turner Networks unveiled a software-oriented solution dubbed TVinContext, which custom-matches advertising with scenes from adjacent programming. “If a movie features a scene about marriage, Turner will be able to place an ad in the next commercial break for a related product, such as wedding rings,” the company said. “A movie scene in a cafe could be followed by an ad for coffee.”

Just reading about it, please cue an ad for aspirin.

Recent Nielsen data already show a marked jump in product placement, primarily featured within unscripted programs such as “The Biggest Loser” and “The Apprentice.” NBC Entertainment co-chief Ben Silverman appears especially willing to test those frontiers — including within dramatic series, based on the network’s dreadful, car-pushing “Knight Rider” revival.

So far, the rather comforting argument has been that audiences won’t complain, but not all signs point toward passive acceptance. When CW tried a half-hour lifestyle magazine, “CW Now,” weaving sponsors throughout the program, viewers saw through the ruse and soundly rejected it — exhibiting little interest in what amounted to a primetime infomercial. (CW has fared slightly better creatively with its “content wraps,” another ploy to ensure commercials are seen.)

At least a few executives publicly acknowledge concern about limits. “I’m always going to err on the side of caution when it comes to product integration,” ABC Entertainment prexy Stephen McPherson told reporters prior to his net’s upfront event.

Of course, during the formal presentation his boss, Disney Media Networks co-chair Anne Sweeney, offered an upbeat appraisal, telling media buyers that content-hungry viewers are “more than happy to accept advertising to get it all for free.”

It’s certainly a reassuring thought — the assumption that the reluctance to pay for programming correlates with cheerful tolerance of commercials — except for one nagging question: If viewers are amenable to making that tradeoff for free content, please explain why those DVR users are so zap-happy in the first place?

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