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Facebook Promotes Portal With Starring Roles in ABC Shows

ABC’s hottest new star doesn’t have a long resume of previous sitcom gigs and character roles. But the network is hoping viewers like what they see.

Facebook’s Portal, a mobile device that facilitates video chats, is turning up in some of ABC’s most popular programs as part of a broader ad deal. A Portal figured prominently in the recent season premiere of the network’s “Modern Family.” On Friday, ABC’s’ “Good Morning America” ran a segment showing how a family in New York used a Portal to connect with relatives in Kentucky. And a Portal will be spotted in prominent fashion in the December 10th broadcast of another well-known ABC series, “Black-ish.”

Even as a range of new gadgets threaten to replace the TV screen for a rising generation of viewers, their manufacturers keep turning to TV shows to demonstrate what the wonder machines can do. “It is a category that is really strong for us and growing,” says Jessica Popper, director of integrated marketing for ABC’s primetime and late-night programs, in an interview. “As different technology options grow, there is no better way for these companies to expose viewers to them other than to put them in the hands of very relateable characters.”

Disney has been wary about ceding its TV time to advertisers that are building rival businesses to its video. In October, it was revealed the company was no longer allowing Netflix to run commercials on ABC, Freeform or FX. But Disney remains open to doing ad deals with content companies with which it has a broader relationship that could include distribution or programming.

TV has over the years been viewed as valuable ground for a host of technology titans. Verizon Wireless won a four-way scrum among telecommunications companies to get its flip-phones into the hands of characters like Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf in the debut season of the CW’s “Gossip Girl” in 2007. The populace of Chester’s Mill – trapped under a dome in the CBS drama called, um, “Under The Dome” – relied heavily on Microsoft’s Surface devices in the summer of 2013. And Apple gizmos ranging from the iPad to the iPhone keep turning up in series ranging from “Modern Family” to Fox’s “9-1-1.”

Big Tech often needs a TV pitch to make a sale. TV characters using the new contraptions can influence purchase consideration and brand recall in ways that a search ad or social-media post simply cannot.

Facebook wants potential Portal users to see the device in action, says Judy Liu, who oversees influencer marketing for Facebook’s augmented reality and virtual reality businesses. The Portal’s camera “pans and zooms to keep you in the frame,” she notes, while its audio “keeps the focus on the person speaking and tunes out the background noise.” She adds: “We turn to TV to bring that power to life.”

Facebook has put the bulk of its ad spending on traditional media into TV. The social-media giant put about 66% of its 2018 ad spending – nearly $212.8 million out of approximately $319 million – into TV commercials, according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spend. In the first six months of 2019, Facebook has spent nearly $62.7 million out of $97.3 million on TV advertising, Kantar says.

The company has played a part in changing the way we all live, but executives at both Facebook and ABC say no storylines or news procedures have been changed to accommodate a Portal peek. Instead, says Marco Forte, senior vice president of Disney Advertising Sales, the agreement between the two entities simply sent ABC executives searching for opportunities in shows that might make sense.

Producers of ABC’s TV shows “obviously have their creative control,” he says. “At the end of the day, it’s all about how we can do something in the most organic way possible.”

In the “Modern Family” season premieres, Alex Dunphy has moved far away for a job and uses her Portal to reach out to various members of her clan. “It was already in the works that she was going to be away from her family,” says Facebook’s Liu. On “Black-ish,” a Portal will be used to help one family member connect to another on Christmas morning.

“GMA” offers a different challenge, because it’s a news program. But executives said producers typically look for heartwarming stories to tell as the holidays grow near. Friday’s segment not only told the story of a family trying to connect but featured a surprise reunion between the New York and Kentucky relatives live in the studio. The audience that takes part in the show’s second hour was given two Portal Minis to take home with them at show’s end.

Product placement alone can’t do the whole job. Facebook has launched a traditional TV campaign with commercials that feature Muppets like Fozzie Bear (a property, coincidentally enough, also owned by Disney), and on Wednesday launched a series of holiday-themed series of videos on Twitter and Instagram that feature Kim Kardashian West, Jennifer Lopez and Alex Rodriguez trying to stay in touch with each other.

As the holidays draw near, Facebook faces intense and growing competition. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, several networks were running ads for Samsung Note 10+ smartphones that were tied to Disney’s new “Star Wars” release. Others offered ads for Google’s Nest Hub, another video display device that can help users manage home activity.

As rivals flood holiday commercial breaks, Facebook no doubt hopes to gain traction by weaving its device into the programs themselves.

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