ABC and other TV networks routinely allow certain advertisers to weave their smartphones and cola cans into scripted comedies and dramas as part of a longstanding practice known as “product placement.” This Sunday, instead of just putting a Lexus into the next episode of its popular freshman series about FBI recruits, the Disney-owned broadcast outlet created a special virtual-reality segment of the program in which the automaker plays a major role.
It’s a maneuver that could bolster use of an emerging media environment. “There’s tremendous opportunity for storytelling in this space, and I think it offers unique opportunities,” said Jeffrey Weinstock, vice president and creative director at ABC Integrated Marketing, in an interview. Viewers “are going to actually be part of the world of the show.”
During the midseason return of “Quantico” this Sunday evening, a promotional banner will appear at the bottom of the TV screen suggesting viewers take a look at QuanticoVR.com. Upon arrival, viewers can go into the world of the program and assume the role of a new recruit on a mission with “Quantico” characters Shelby Wyatt (played by Johanna Braddy) and Caleb Haas (played by Graham Rogers) as they track down a target – all with the assistance of a Lexus LX 570 flagship SUV. Curious seekers who check out the scene, which should clock in at under three minutes and 30 seconds, will be rewarded not only with a 360-degree view of the action, but a few “Easter egg” reveals about the show and its storylines. The website will offer instructions for accessing the experience on desktop or via a Littlstar VR app for headsets, mobile and Apple TV. The segment was produced by “Quantico” showrunners and writers.
The network unveils the new-tech idea at a heady time. TV networks are gearing up to hawk new programs and intriguing advertising packages as part of the industry’s annual upfront marketplace, where U.S. media companies try to sell the bulk of their ad inventory for the coming season. Many TV outlets will pitch their ability to create “custom” content that ties advertisers more directly to specific series and specials. Demonstrating a finesse with an emerging are like virtual reality could help ABC draw notice away from competitors.
The prospect of interacting with fictional worlds through virtual-reality technology may spark more attention soon. Mattel and Google have touted a new version of the old “View-Master” toy that had kids spend time looking at pictures of exotic places by gazing into a hand-held viewer. The companies’ new iteration works with images displayed via smartphones that are decidedly more interesting than the static pictures scrutinized by a previous generation.
ABC’s effort doesn’t mark the first time an advertiser and a show have teamed up to create a virtual reality experience. In the spring of 2014, AT&T helped fans of “Conan” on TBS view some show segments with a 360-degree perspective, including one in which host Conan O’Brien hurled four and a half pounds of Texas red meat via a catapult. ABC’s effort, however, may be one of the earliest examples of a sponsor being written into a scripted program shown in this new way.
ABC produced the virtual-reality scene after being approached by Lexus in recent weeks, said Weinstock. Lexus considers the virtual-reality experiment to be “a nice way to introduce ourselves” to “super fans” of “Quantico,” said Brian Bolain, Lexus corporate marketing communications and product marketing manager, in an interview. People who choose to visit “have raised their hand,” he said, and are likely to be more engaged with the segment – and thus more likely to take notice of the Lexus vehicle contained within it – than the average couch potato.
In the recent past, TV-news outlets have been seemed more eager to pursue virtual-reality content, and for obvious reasons: Creating virtual-reality reports could represent a way to get consumers to spend more time with video-news, particularly as news aficionados gravitate more heavily to smartphones and social-media to keep up with headlines.
Time Warner’s CNN in October arranged for a version of one of the Democratic presidential debates to be live-streamed to the Samsung Gear VR headset. Viewers could watch the broadcast with 360-degree views. ABC News last September made a VR version of a visit correspondent Alexander Marquardt made to Damascus, Syria. During a broadcast of “Nightline,” viewers were prodded to check out a panoramic view of the report that was practically three-dimensional.
There’s some hard reality about virtual reality for scripted programming: Making it is tough. Because VR allows for a 360-degree view, said ABC’s Weinstock, the cameras capture all action on set, not just a close-up of an actor’s face, or a particular movement. “You have to do things in one long take,” he explained. “For the actors, it becomes like a live play. It was a different approach for them.”
Even so, he said, ABC is willing to tackle the idea again if advertiser demand should increase. If that’s the case, the casts of ABC programs ranging from “Grey’s Anatomy” to “Modern Family” may want to hone their chops at playing to the virtual-reality camera instead of the normal one.