From must-see to must-have TV
For marketers, turning sitcoms into shopping malls is nirvana. Is it more than a pipe dream?
December 21, 2004: 6:00 PM EST
By Krysten Crawford, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Carrie Bradshaw is revered on Madison Avenue for turning Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo into household names.

But the "Sex and the City" fashionista couldn't deliver marketer nirvana --the ability by viewers to see Bradshaw's latest bling-bling, think "I've gotta have that," pick up the remote control and, with the push of a few buttons, get those stiletto heels delivered.

That could soon change.

NBC Universal, for one, is in the process of creating a digital catalog of products that will allow consumers to do just that. The network is developing a way to buy items that appear on select shows, including "Will & Grace," "Las Vegas," the daytime soap opera "Passions" and, on cable, "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

The idea is to help advertisers and networks pitch products to consumers "when the impulse to buy is the greatest for the viewer," explains Michael Fitzsimmons, the founder and CEO of Delivery Agent, the San Francisco company that developed the technology NBC Universal is using.

Such talk is catnip to Madison Avenue and Hollywood. Consumer apathy and ad-skipping technology like TiVo digital video recorders are making the 30-second commercial obsolete.

To combat the threat, entertainment and advertising executives are relying increasingly on product placement within shows to draw consumer interest. According to recent data from Nielsen Media Research, viewers in the first three months of the fall television season were treated to more than 7,000 corporate messages while watching the 10 primetime broadcast shows that make the heaviest use of product placement.

That's a 40 percent spike from the same period a year earlier, reports Nielsen.

At the top of the list: "The Apprentice," with nearly 90 product occurrences on average per telecast. "American Idol" had 3,000 during its entire season earlier this year.

Skeptical? Think scripted dialogue and background props.

Selling Aniston's sweater

But the focus on product placement -- which NBC Universal, a General Electric (Research) unit, aims to take to a new level with its digital catalogs -- is fueling a debate about whether the industry is taking a profitable idea way too far.

Jack Myers, an independent media and entertainment industry analyst, thinks so. Myers calls product placement a "sugar-coated palliative" that is not the panacea the industry needs to solve its long-term economic woes. Worse, he thinks "Madison & Vine," the industry term for the morphing of advertising and programming, risks a consumer backlash.

The industry joke "used to be that everyone was trying to figure out how to sell Jennifer Aniston's sweater," Myers said, referring to the actress who played Rachel on the NBC hit "Friends," which ended its decade-long run this spring.

But, Myers said, "Hollywood and Madison Ave. need to keep the distance between entertainment and commerce," he said, "or else venture into territory that could be disenfranchising."

Others disagree. Gerry Kaufhold, a principal analyst with market researcher In-Stat/MDR, thinks product placement is a viable alternative to commercial breaks and that consumers will be receptive to the idea of using their remote controls to buy Grace Adler's dress.

"When my wife is watching 'Queer Eye for the Straight Guy' she often wants more information on things Thom (the show's 'Design Doctor') has been doing to an apartment," said Kaufhold.

He also points to British consumers, whose television sets have long been enabled to provide viewers with product information on, say, Jamaican vacations. Viewers can gamble too, using their British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) set-top television devices to dial up bookies.

Consumers are key

But in the U.S., couch shopping is still equated with the Home Shopping Network or QVC.

"It's taking time to roll out," said Delivery Agent's Fitzsimmons. "The number of people who can actually use their remote to complete transactions is limited today. A lot aren't enabled to do all the things you need to be able to do," he said.

For now, NBC viewers who want to buy that Grace Adler dress will have to dial a toll-free number or go online.

That's bound to change as interactive television becomes mainstream. Nearly half of the 110 million U.S. households with television sets now have digital cable or satellite service. On top of NBC Universal, companies like Time Warner Cable (owned by Time Warner, as is CNN/Money), Cablevision and Echostar are also developing interactive shopping capabilities.

What's not known, however, is whether consumers will ever embrace the use of remote control as personal buyers. Technological hurdles aside, interactive shopping requires consumers to think about television viewing differently, says Brad Adgate, the senior vice president of corporate research at Horizon Media, a New York branding firm.

"Television viewing has been, for the most part, a passive activity," said Adgate. To work, networks and marketers will have to convince consumers to take action.

"That," said Adgate, "is the trick."  Top of page