Brave New TV World: Sopranos Team Joins With Big Ad Agency

On Jan. 14, Brad Grey’s Basic Entertainment, which has brought you The Sopranos , Just Shoot Me and Politically Incorrect , announced it had formed a partnership with J. Walter Thompson, the second-largest ad firm in the country representing big-name advertisers like the Ford Motor, Kellogg and Miller Brewing companies.

The partnership harks back to the earliest days of television, when you had General Electric Theater and The Colgate Comedy Hour , and sponsors were directly associated with shows. It could quickly drag product placement from the comparative sanctity of the commercial break right into the content of TV entertainment. And it could bring advertising agencies into program development from the early creative stages.

Neither partner rules out a scenario where you could see a TV show underwritten by an automobile manufacturer about a group of race car drivers, or by a bathing suit manufacturer about a group of gorgeous lifeguards, or a sitcom by a dot-com provider about a group of dot-com users. That’s a scary one, huh, kids? It could also spawn more story lines similar to the famous Junior Mints episode of Seinfeld , where the mint artfully played a major role in the plot–it fell into a chest cavity during a character’s surgery; it was not part of any product placement deal.

Inspired by J. Walter Thompson, the partnership was born out of the necessities of the changing economy. Things were bad enough for TV advertisers when there were all those new cable channels. Any time a commercial came on, the surfer culture could just sail off into the 100-channel universe.

But now comes along Tivo and Web TV–recording systems that allow viewers to skip through commercials at will–and the threat of digital TV with its 500 channels.

Then there’s the planned AOL-Time Warner deal, which promises to usher in interactive television where viewers could pretty soon download their shows off the Internet, sans commercials. In essence, TV’s audience is being liberated from its years of captivity. In recent years, the networks have tried every split-screened, commercial-crunching, time-compressing trick available to get viewers to stay with an ever more advanced breed of advertising.

On the plus side for retail advertisers, interactive television will likely allow consumers to buy things right off their TV sets with the click of the mouse.

So Madison Avenue is hunkering down and devising ways to position its clients and get their messages out as the traditional advertising model becomes outmoded–and get more involved with shows as they’re being produced.

“The whole endeavor is meant to go far beyond the 30-second spot,” said J. Walter Thompson executive Marina Hahn, who is running the new partnership, called “(c) JWT,” with the “(c)” standing for content. “I think you can create whole television programs and create whole series,” said Ms. Hahn. “What you’re really trying to do is extend a brand essence.” She said several deals are in the works.

Out of the partnership could come shows like Paramount Television’s Viper , a syndicated action series centering around a crime fighter who drives a Dodge Viper. This isn’t just product placement. The Viper is essentially itself a character.

“I see no reason why a company can’t deficit finance a 13-episode series that revolves around their brand position,” Ms. Hahn said. “The subject matter could be organically based on the overall gestalt of the brand and what the brand’s about.”

For example, she said, the partnership could produce a one-hour drama series that’s set in Silicon Valley for a tech firm represented by J.W.T. It could be scripted by Basic’s writers with actors coming from Brillstein-Grey Management’s stable of stars. Certainly other tech firms would find such a show an attractive commercial buy as well.

Or, she agreed, the partnership could conceivably–though not likely–have a half-hour “Tony the Tiger” cartoon. After all, Ms. Hahn said, “Tony the Tiger has as high a Q rating as Mickey Mouse and a higher Q rating than Fred Flintstone.” Q ratings measure how well liked a character or celebrity is.

“I’m not saying we are going to do it,” she said, “but Tony the Tiger has four friends in the Kellogg’s family, they’re all legitimate characters. We have a stable of brands that happen to have interesting characters associated with them.”

That scenario wouldn’t be all that different from Pokémon , which acts in part as an ad for the Pokémon toys.

More traditionally, the partnership could help J. Walter Thompson produce advertisements that play off the plot in midstream, during commercial breaks.

Others are already following J. Walter Thompson’s lead. NBC has formed a media company jointly with Polo Ralph Lauren in which the network will help the clothes maker launch an Internet site and, possibly down the road, develop TV programming.

In August, a group of advertisers led by Procter & Gamble donated $1 million to the WB network earmarked for the development of more family-friendly shows. But the general concept isn’t sitting well with Hollywood writers and producers, who see it as pure commercial osmosis between the business and creative sides of the business.

“The networks spent a lot of years trying to get out from under the control of sponsors in terms of content, and I think that that was a very important evolution for broadcast television,” said Marshall Herskovitz, executive producer of ABC’s Once and Again .

Mr. Herskovitz said he was recently asked whether he would be interested in producing a show for an advertiser down the road. “I said, ‘Absolutely not,'” he said.

“It’s worrisome to me to go in the reverse direction,” Mr. Herskovitz said. “I think if I did a television show sponsored by Ford Motor [Company], and all the characters drove Fords, and I was told not to do a story line about faulty gas tanks, that’s where you run into a problem. The point is, I can choose what products I want my characters to use based on what I think is a truthful representation of that person.”

“It’s very hard to pull it off without making the audience feel that a fast one is being pulled on them,” said David Kissinger, president of Studios USA, which produces the Law & Order series. “I think the bar has to be very, very high in order to not let the marketing motives get in the way of the entertainment value.”

But Kevin Bright, one of the producers of Friends , said he thought it could generally help TV. Having a sponsor who’s committed to a show means there’s more chance it will last. “It really takes some of the pressure off that show,” he said. “The client’s going to be more likely to say, ‘We’re going to keep it on the air and try to make it successful creatively.'”

“It is really taking the purpose of TV to its logical extreme,” said David Kohan, executive producer of NBC’s Will & Grace . “When you think about it, we’re filler between the commercials from the extent of the corporation, anyway.” Executives with (c) JWT insisted they would not let the content of shows be corrupted. Basic Entertainment could act as the superego to J. Walter Thompson’s id, putting the brakes on anything that could tarnish its reputation–currently stellar, thanks to The Sopranos .

“In terms of the shows that we develop and what talent they’re populated by, that’s not really a part of the process we intend to share,” said Mr. Grey. “I don’t have any intention of bringing the advertiser into the creative process in that literal a way.

“If you bring Madison Ave. in as part of the process … not necessarily in terms of the creation of content but in terms of keeping in mind … the demographic they’re trying to reach for their dollar,” he said, “I think it will ultimately serve everyone in the equation.”

“Consumer behavior is changing,” Ms. Hahn said. “Our younger targets are able to go on line and watch TV and chew gum at the same time. It’s not like the old days when you had three networks and that was it.”

A recent study on TV ad viewership conducted in Canada, by Tandemar Research Inc. last spring, found that only about one-third of Canada’s English-speaking TV audience–which generally mirrors the United States’–was sticking around for the commercials.

“A third click off, and another third come or go and leave the room–they go take a pee, they go to the laundry room and put another load in the dryer,” said John Hallward of Tandemar. Another third, he said, are in the room and leave the channel on, but it is impossible to tell exactly how much attention they are paying to the commercials. “The evidence shows that there is not a lot of attention paid at commercial breaks,” Mr. Hallward said.

Meanwhile, the technological future seems stacked against the 30-second ad, even as it commands top ratings. A survey of television and Internet executives at the National Association of Television Programming Executives conference in New Orleans last month found 35 percent believed network television would cease to be ad-based in the next decade.

“We’ve gotta be on the lookout for the opportunities to extend brands and brand messaging into content–be it analog TV or digital Internet content sites or whatever,” said Guy McCarter, chief of BBDO New York’s entertainment marketing division. “You’ve got to look at ways other than the 30-second commercial, which is still the king of communication, for your brand. All those sorts of conversations are ongoing. I will say that it is true Hollywood and Madison Ave. are talking more now than in my 18-year career.”

Meanwhile, tonight on Lucky Strike’s Politically Incorrect , comedian John Fugelsang; activist David Duke; host Bill Maher. [WABC, 7, 12:05 A.M.]

Catch the latest installment of TV Guide’s The Truth Behind the Sitcom Scandals , one of the greatest shows around. Tonight, it’s dirt from the sets of Mash and The Love Boat . The producers said the Love Boat segment is the juicier part, featuring stories about various love affairs between the cast members and Lauren Tewes’ fall from grace. Toot-toot! All aboard! [WNYW, 5, 8 P.M.]

Thursday, Feb. 10

Bryant Gumbel’s Early Show finished the last week of January with improved ratings. Though it had been averaging 2.3 million households for the season, the CBS breakfast show averaged 2.6 million Jan. 24 through Jan. 28. That is the equivalent of the ratings for CBS This Morning , which the Early Show replaced with promises that it would do far better with A.M. viewers. But, the show’s executive producer, Steve Friedman, said he thought the upswing could put Mr. Gumbel’s show in position for a ratings boom during the current sweeps period, which began Feb. 3.

“We’ve been taking a beating in the press about these ratings,” Mr. Friedman said. “We don’t laugh them off. We kept saying, be patient, be patient, we were going to build until February, that’s the most important time there was. This is the foundation week. We don’t expect the ratings to go up in a straight line, but this is a step in the right direction.” [WCBS, 2, 7 A.M.]

Friday, Feb. 11

It’s the 10th anniversary of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks , so Bravo has returned the show to television. It makes sense, since executives there said the show always kills for them. Which makes sense because the show always killed, period. It now runs in the slot that belonged to Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends . Mr. Theroux, meanwhile, will probably return to Bravo when he tapes another round of shows.

Tonight, in the first Twin Peaks after the pilot, Catherine begins her horrible plotting. [Bravo, 64, 8 P.M.]

Saturday, Feb. 12

NASCAR Daytona 500 Pole Qualifying round. Watch cars go round and round and round and round, switch lanes, then go round and round and round and round some more. Someday, this will be sponsored by your local Datsun dealer, and it will be only Datsuns. [WCBS, 2, 12 noon.]

Sunday, Feb. 13

Chris Carter is apparently still stinging from Fox’s cancellation of his fall virtual reality show, Harsh Realm . During the Feb. 6 episode of The X-Files , a young girl is kidnapped as her father is downstairs watching Harsh Realm on the tube and muttering to himself, “Good show.” Later, when he is asked what he was doing when his daughter is killed, he replied that he was watching TV. He said he couldn’t remember what show it was, but that it was “a good show, though.” That bitter Mr. Carter! Anyway, tonight, it’s the continuation of the Feb. 6 X-Files , in which we find out whether Mulder’s sister was really abducted by aliens. [WNYW, 5, 9 P.M.]

Monday, Feb. 14

Robert Klein is gearing up for another one-man HBO special that will tape in September or October. To prepare, he will begin doing regular, Wednesday night gigs at the small Gotham Comedy Club. He told NYTV it’s how he likes to sharpen his chops and come up with material for these specials.

“The best way to write the stuff is to go back to the smaller, more intimate venues and, yes, people are drinking and sometimes eating,” he said.

This will be Mr. Klein’s seventh stand-up show for HBO. He did the cable channel’s first one in 1975, taped at Haverford College. Lately, Mr. Klein has been somewhat quiet, doing occasional club appearances and some corporate ones. See, when the economy is good, big business has enough cash lying around to hire a guy like Robert Klein for special nights.

“Did Pfizer for a new product for animals: Put it behind the cat’s head or dog’s head and fleas, worms, everything disappears,” he said. “I did the American Society of Dermatologists, came out scratching.”

Tonight, HBO is apparently trying to appeal to the male, Valentine’s Day backlash audience, beginning prime-time with Switchback –about an F.B.I. agent looking to avenge his son’s murder–and wrapping with Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel . Now that’s romance. [HBO, 32, 8 P.M.]

Tuesday, Feb. 15

Regis Philbin’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire has not only reversed the fortunes of ABC, but, for at least one hour, it helped reverse the fortunes of network television itself. On Wednesday, Feb. 2, the Big Four networks, which have been steadily losing viewers, saw their combined audience grow by 6.8 million compared to Wednesday, Jan. 24, in the 8 to 9 P.M. hour, leaping from 45.1 million to 51.9 million. This, of course, is just one hour we’re talking about. But after so much decline, any upward blip is cause for celebration among network chiefs. Of course, it’s still unclear how long all of this lasts. One thing’s for certain. Somehow, this Millionaire thing is miraculously rolling along. But tonight, there is something so special, so delightful, so … delectable!!! that it stands alone in the rip-off territory: Fox’s rip-off Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? , hosted by Murphy Brown’s ex-fiancé Jay Thomas, where a multimillionaire picks a bride from 50 magnificent contestants. [WNYW, 5, 8 P.M.]