Brandtique: Chevrolet, 'Law & Order'

Count on product placement at NBC Universal to only accelerate going forward. The reason: word this week that the company has tapped Telemundo executive Steve Mandala to head sales for its entertainment cable fleet.

Mandala and his colleagues at the Spanish-language network have shown a steady determination to wring revenues from slotting brands into content. Up for sale have been three options for a marketer to weave a product into one of Telemundo's signature telenovelas: what the network alternately refers to as "passive integration," "active integration" and "storyline integration." Each is progressively more expensive.

"Passive" is the proverbial Coke can on the kitchen table, essentially wallpaper. "Active" involves character interaction, where one perhaps sends a text message via a T-Mobile Sidekick. "Storyline" is becoming increasingly popular in scripted television--where, say, a text message sent via a Sidekick serves as a jumping-off point for a scene or conflict.



Telemundo has expressed such faith that it can persuade marketers to pony up a pretty penny for various integrations that it plans to launch a telenovela this spring that will be essentially commercial-free. All the revenues normally derived from say, 16 minutes of spots, would instead come from "passive" and "active" and "storyline."

Still, even if Mandala brings a certain fervor for newfangled branded entertainment to his new post at NBCU, the cable group hasn't exactly shied away from it recently. A game of "Spot the Product" on a Bravo reality series is no challenge. And USA is now increasingly embracing brand-show connections that include product placement along with other multi-layered tactics.

One recent example was no small feat. Like many creative types, Dick Wolf, the producer behind the "Law & Order" troika, is known to have a strong aversion to anything intersecting with product placement. Several years back, TNT planned to employ virtual product placement for "Law & Order" reruns where, say, a Starbucks logo would be digitally inserted on what was a blank coffee cup in the original episode. Wolf and his team resisted.

Yet, on the Oct. 4 season premiere of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent," Chevrolet was on board (one of the top product placements of the week, according to measurement firm iTVX). Perhaps having a show move to cable will change a producer's mind--toward different revenue streams.

This season, NBCU has shifted "Criminal Intent" (after plummeting ratings on flagship NBC) to cable sibling USA. When word came, Wolf offered perfunctory praise. After all, it may have saved his series.

But in the process, NBCU may have been able to extract some concessions from the humbled producer--perhaps some rights to inject brand messages as the crime fighters give chase.

Traditionally, networks have overlaid their logo--or a "coming soon house ad"--on a bottom corner of the screen as the action unfolds. USA, however, has turned that into saleable inventory (others have also done so--notably TBS, which has placed corner-to-corner banners with a marketer's logo).

During USA's summer series, "Burn Notice," a "Presented by DirecTV" bug appeared in as the action unfolded.

Similarly, on the Oct. 4 "Criminal Intent," a "Presented by Chevy" tag with the automaker's logo was displayed--and not once, but three separate times during the hour.

Also like the DirecTV "Burn Notice," which had an audio plug for the satellite operator in a scene, the "Criminal Intent" episode featured a shot of a Chevy logo on the front grill of a vehicle--sort of "passive integration."

(There was also a voiceover heading into a break, noting that the show "will be back in 60 seconds following this message from tonight's exclusive presenting sponsor, Chevy, an American Revolution." It's de rigueur for series to have "exclusive sponsors" and "presenting sponsors," but has there ever been an "exclusive presenting" double dip?)

Besides a Wolf series joining the branded entertainment parade, there were several other curious aspects of Chevy's "exclusive presenting sponsorship."

For one, the scene that briefly showed a Chevy logo on a vehicle front then showed a spiffy black BMW Mini in the background for a much longer period as a character skateboarded in the foreground. And the pre-roll for a recap of the episode on was for Suzuki, with a banner alongside for the competitor.

Neither was likely to hearten the brand team at the former "Heartbeat of America."

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