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Apple Polishing: iPhone Giant Can’t Keep Mum About Behind-the-Scenes TV Role

Fox’s “9-1-1,” an eye-popping drama about cops and rescue workers, is chock full of interesting characters. One of them doesn’t get a shout-out in the opening credits.

If you’ve watched the Ryan Murphy-produced drama, which has shown a man falling out of an upside-down roller coaster and a metal bar piercing another fellow’s cranium, you’ve no doubt noticed a few members of the stellar cast. There’s Angela Bassett as Athena Grant, an L.A.P.D. patrol sergeant with a troubled marriage; Peter Krause as a fire captain with a dark past; and Connie Britton as Abby Clark, a 9-1-1 operator.

No one can miss the individual keeping them connected. It’s an Apple iPhone.

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When it comes to placing products in shows, Apple is slowly moving from relying on surprising cameos to taking credited roles. For years, the popular consumer-electronics giant quietly supplied its favorite showrunners and their production staffs with plenty of gear. Fans of Ryan Murphy series like “Glee,” “Scream Queens” and “American Horror Story” are likely to notice Apple products quietly surfacing in various scenes.

Fox’s “9-1-1” is a show about rescues, however, not mysteries. And that’s appropriate, because there’s no question about Apple’s role in the program. The “9-1-1” characters are constantly using the company’s smartphones to keep in touch.  The action in one episode even suggested Connie Britton’s Abby used the device to have phone sex with Buck, a young firefighter played by Oliver Stark. Viewers never see that connection on camera, but Apple’s role in the show has been spelled out each week in the closing credits, where viewers are alerted to a “promotional consideration sponsored by Apple.” One imagines they will see it again tonight, when Fox broadcasts the final episode in the series’ first season.

Apple did not respond to a query seeking comment. Fox declined to make executives available for comment. And don’t get started on trying to find out if any money changed hands for the “9-1-1” appearances. “We didn’t have anything to do with it,” says a spokeswoman for OMD, the Omnicom Group media-buying agency that purchases ad time for Apple.

The iPhone giant has many reasons to weave its products into popular shows. “They need to sell their increasingly more expensive smartphones to keep their revenues flowing in,” notes P.K. Kannan, a marketing professor at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “Producers and marketers of hardware have a tough problem when they release new models – convincing the customers of their older models to upgrade to the new versions.” Getting a new iPhone “in the hands of a cool celebrity in a movie or music video or TV program is more likely to garner attention and interest rather than a straight and persuasive TV advertisement,” says Kannan. “If done right, product placements can lead to more viral campaigns than other forms of ads. Apple is probably counting on this.”

Having that fact disclosed in obvious manner on screen, however, hasn’t always been Apple’s norm. Consider the case of “Modern Family.” In 2010, Apple managed to get its iPad into a storyline on the program –  just days before the device was scheduled for its first release.  Apple didn’t pay a cent for the appearance – quite a bargain!  One “Modern Family” character, Phil Dunphy, clutched an iPad in the episode’s key scenes. In 2015, the series featured an episode with the action displayed entirely on Apple device screens. Again, no paid product placement.

Indeed, Apple has made prominent appearances in many popular series. You may have seen iPhones ring this season in Showtime’s drama “Homeland” (produced by Fox’s Fox 21 studio). And Apple products have long surfaced on HBO, whether in the form of an Apple laptop in “Sex and the City” or as a smartphone in the comedy “Divorce” (both, coincidentally, star Sarah Jessica Parker).  “Products in shows are creative decisions, not product placement,” says a spokesman for the Time Warner-owned pay-cable outlet.

Yes, but. In advertising and production circles, it’s well known that Apple may not always pay the networks that run the programs, but that the presence of its devices is aimed at selling the tech. Others do it, too. The propmaster for “Homeland” tries to keep characters supplied with a variety of smartphones, including gear from Apple, Google, Blackberry and Samsung, says a person familiar with the show – even going so far as to keep the same phones with the same characters and not letting phones show up in the hands of evil figures on the program.

Apple has been able to maintain a curtain around its in-show walk-ons. Now that seems to be opening, albeit slowly. Apple struck a deal last season to appear in NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” part of a new effort at the network to create content for advertisers tied more directly to the venerable comedy series. In May of last year, “SNL” aired a sketch that made use of an Apple laptop. A video “bumper” appearing in the live broadcast in advance of the sketch told the audience: “Promotional Consideration for SNL Furnished By Apple.”

In other instances, Apple hasn’t been as shy about TV support. After “SNL” segments featuring musical guests, Apple has this season run short bumpers asking viewers to use Siri to download the show’s app. Apple has done something similar during broadcasts of TBS’ “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee,” asking viewers to use Siri to find previous episodes of the series. In 2015, Apple sponsored an appearance by Ryan Adams on Comedy Central’s “Daily Show,” running an on-screen message about Apple Music as the musician played a tune.

Do the math, and Apple’s plan becomes much easy to understand.

The in-show placements aren’t necessarily free – supplying product costs something – but they are substantially cheaper than traditional TV commercials. And that frees Apple up to spend heavily in more obvious ways. Among 2016 and 2017 TV programs, Apple spent the most on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” according to Kantar Media, a tracker of ad spending. Last season, the average cost of a 30-second ad in that show was $728,434, according to Variety’s annual survey of primetime ad prices.

Apple may not pay for its guest-star appearances, but they sure are lucrative.

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