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ESPN Will Transform ‘SportsCenter’ Set Into ‘Tomorrowland’ In Ad Pact

In the not too distant future, ESPN’s Jay Harris will take a step into the very distant future, and he will do it from the set of the Walt Disney network’s flagship show, “SportsCenter.”

On May 21, viewers will see Harris walk around the “SportsCenter” set and come upon a pin with markings from “Tomorrowland,” the new film starring George Clooney slated to launch Friday May 22. When Harris touches the pin, the entire set of the show will suddenly turn into a scene from the movie. Not too soon after, the show will transition into a trailer from the movie, which is distributed by Walt Disney Studios.

Harris isn’t traveling to some new land a la CNN’s Anthony Bourdain. He’s simply taking part in a new kind of commercial that ESPN hopes to design for advertisers willing to invest more in the network – a “takeover” of a program that is designed by the sports-media juggernaut’s in-house unit ESPN CreativeWorks. ESPN has offered to help sponsors tailor commercial pitches for the last five years and a host of other outlets have begun to make available similar services in hopes of capturing more ad cash from marketers.

Advertisers have typically relied on big, global ad agencies to help their commercials stand apart from the programs they support. In recent months, however, a number of different TV networks have made a different pitch: We can help your ads seem more a piece of the programming that viewers tuned in to watch in the first place. The idea has gained traction as more viewers seem ready to skip past the commercials interrupting their video programming with a fast-forward button or the click of a mouse.

The offer has been made multiple times as TV networks seek to entice Madison Avenue to buy more advertising s pat of the industry’s annual “upfront” market, when media companies try to sell the bulk of their ad inventory. Already, Walt Disney and Viacom’s Nickelodeon have offered services to help advertisers create new promotions in digital and social media that use elements of the networks’ programs. At AMC, many of the ads that accompany the network’s “The Walking Dead” use zombie themes to tie the commercials to the show. When NBC last year showed its live dramatization of “Peter Pan,” it helped create ads for Walmart that used songs from the play, as well as an ersatz Tinker Bell figure.

“Our goal is to connect to the fans” and make an ad message “feel like the environment they are in,” said Carrie Brzezinski, vice president and lead of CreativeWorks.

ESPN hopes the “Tomorrowland” takeover will “spur other categories to get innovative and create their own unique story” by using the company’s programming, said Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN’s global customer marketing and sales. He says the concept has “clearly resonated with the movie category.” The Disney studio is paying for the commercial, ESPN executives said, and not enjoying a special benefit because the two units share a corporate parent.

Executives have taken care to make sure viewers understand they are seeing a commercial. Harris’ trip to “Tomorrowland” will take place as the show is scheduled to go to an ad break, said Brzezinski. The “Tomorrowland” transformation will be seen at a time when viewers might expect to see a “brought to you by” announcement with a logo from a particular advertisers placed on screen, she said.

“I think we know where the lines are,” she said. “We don’t do this in every program.”

ESPN reserves the services for advertisers who increase the amount of money they spend with the company, said Erhardt, and will design the bespoke promotions for any type of venue the sponsor might desire, whether that be print pages, TV time or digital inventory. ESPN bills production fees at cost, he said. “We are always trying to grow the investment that people do with ESPN, on every version of ESPN,” he said.

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