24 live another day

When Jack Bauer appears on TV screens again in Fox’s much-anticipated revival of its spy-serial “24,” he will do so with two important helpers in tow. One is a trusted colleague and the other a new assistant.

The veteran ally is Sprint, which is returning to “24: Live Another Day” as its primary telecommunications sponsor, and the newbie is Chrysler, which makes its first appearance in the drama, filling a role previously held by Ford and Hyundai.

Many TV shows feature advertisers as part of the action, but “24” is in many ways a first-mover in the increasingly important world of product placement. The practice has been part of TV for decades, as anyone who pauses to analyze the title of 1940s and 50s TV program “Texaco Star Theater” can tell you. But as more viewers gain the ability to avoid traditional advertising, whether through use of a DVR or by watching an online-video stream of a program weeks or months later that comes packaged with fewer commercials, finding new and accepted ways of weaving advertisers into the script itself has become critically important to the business of television.

Sprint will be almost as hard to miss in “24” as Chloe O’Brian, the put-upon character  played by Mary Lynn Rasjkub who is one of the few people in the drama trusted by protagonist Bauer (played by Kiefer Sutherland). Sprint-branded phones will appear in “24” throughout its 12-episode run. The telecommunications marketer, which has been involved in five seasons of the show and even once sponsored an early version of mobile video related to the program called a “mobisode,” will also be involved with a digital experience on Fox.com that gives fans the chance to complete missions of their own and find extra show content.

Chrysler will enjoy much of the same treatment, with its cars seen in the background during several episodes and in hard-to-miss fashion in a single hour. Both sponsors will also be involved in social-media activity around the series and be featured at a screening event for the show

Advertiser demand for the new series, which was announced last year and is part of a new Fox initiative to launch so-called “event series” that use big-idea concepts but only run for a few weeks, was high. “The second we knew Jack was back, our phones started ringing and we had a lot of people interested in it,” said Jean Rossi,executive vice president of sales for Fox Broadcasting.

Fox has been seeking half a million dollars for a 30-second ad in the May 5th two-hour premiere of the series, and $325,000 for ads in subsequent episodes, according to ad buyers and other people familiar with the program. The prices are some of the highest for broadcast television. Rossi declined to comment.

TV has many shows, but few of them with the history of “24.” When the show debuted in 2001, the idea of a program with action that took place in “real time” – hour by hour – was unheard of, largely because the logistics of mounting such a production were so daunting. The series has sparked conversation not only because of some of the odd plot strands that inevitably resulted from trying to sustain a single mission over 24 episodes (who remembers Kim Bauer and the cougar? Or Teri Bauer’s bout with temporary amnesia in the first season?), but also due to its portrayal of a U.S. government agent who is comfortable with using extreme methods, like torture, to get the information he needs. The series’ portrayal of enemy agents with Chinese and Middle Eastern background in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 have also put it on a hot seat.

“Rarely in TV do you get the opportunity to go after a show that has such a massive audience of people who are watering at the mouth to see the next season,” said Andy Love, senior manager of Chrysler Brand. “It’s a rabid fan base and it’s a younger audience base.”

Another reason for the program’s Madison Avenue appeal? Fox and the show’s producers have long been willing to stretch traditional rules to make advertisers part of the story. In the final traditional season of he show, Cisco won a prominent role as the technology that allowed the characters to speak face to face to each other, even though they were never in the same room. The “tele-chats,” which often finished with a major display of the Cisco logo took place well before Skype ever gained the popularity it has now.

And Ford Motor got its F-150 trucks into the program in a unique way. Ford arranged for Fox to show commercial-free season premieres in the second and third season of “24,” which aired between September, 2002 and May, 2004. As part of the deal, Ford bookended the show with longer-than-usual ads featuring an unseen character called “Mr, Bauer,” and other elements of the program. These ads, which forced Fox to take ad time from its affiliates and then give it back at a later date, appeared well before TV networks routinely allowed advertisers to borrow elements from the shows they supported (such as a Jeep commercial that has run in recent weeks on “Saturday Night Live” featuring cast member Cecily Strong).

As is often the case for a drama with many moving parts, making the advertisers part of the show wasn’t easy. Fox’s Rossi said the ad deals were made before anyone realized “24: Live Another Day” would be filmed in London. Producers and executives had to figure out how to get an American car into a program where vehicles are driven on the left hand side of the street, and dashboards are constructed in a different way.

For Chrysler, a close involvement with the show represented a good way to show off the 200, which is set to debut in May, said Love, as well as a place to show off some of the technology in the car to an audience that is clearly fond of gadgets. According to Fox, the audience for “24” skews heavily toward adults who have more than $125,000 in annual income.

At the network, executives fervently wish a successful launch of “24” will bode well for other limited-run “event” series that are lined up for later this year and 2015. “We are hoping this will begin to build a template for our event series, and we are out in the market right now selling the ones that have been announced,” said Rossi, the Fox ad executive. Whether the network can achieve that without a salesman like Jack Bauer remains to be seen.

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