THE nation's future was at stake and Jack Bauer, as usual, was racing against the clock on last month's season premiere of "24." Stuck in an airport crawl space, he could only watch helplessly as the enemy terrorized hostages and made demands of the president.
Fortunately, the writers made sure the maverick agent had a fully charged camera phone. The sponsors made sure it was a Sprint Treo 650.
Bauer even offered a testimonial to his colleagues at headquarters: "I'm going to send you photos of the hostages. They should be clear enough for you to identify them."
Welcome to the world of product integration. More subtle than product placement -- the time-honored practice of having "American Idol" judges drinking from Coca-Cola cups, say -- the rising alternative to commercials actually weaves products into plots and dialogue of some of television's top prime-time scripted shows.
According to Nielsen Media Research, which has been tracking product placements the last three years, the number of placements, including the new integration, jumped 30% to 108,261 last year. NBC ranked highest with 7,470 instances of a product being shown on its reality show "The Contender" alone and an additional 3,009 placement shots on "The Apprentice."
Product integration efforts can be as obvious as Eva Longoria taking work as a spokesmodel for Buick on "Desperate Housewives," or as subversive as the cast of "Arrested Development" making fun of Burger King at a Burger King.
Television, of course, has historically served as a vehicle for advertising. But knowing that sponsors are paying for the boss of "The Office" (Steve Carell) to frequent Chili's and order his "awesome blossom" "extra awesome" might shock some viewers who have grown used to believing scripted programs are pure creative efforts separated by 30-second commercials.
On one episode of "The Office," Carell's character broke into the restaurant's catchy "baby back ribs" jingle while entertaining a potential client there. Stars of "Veronica Mars" and "The O.C." are frequently shown using their T-Mobile Sidekicks to solve mysteries or thicken the plot.
"We're living in a crazy new world," said Gary Newman, president of 20th Century Fox Television, which produces "24." "The old formulas don't necessarily work. We have to be smart and find new ways to monetize the value of our programs," he said.
Networks have joined companies and producers in the scramble to offset the anticipated decline of the 30-second commercial, threatened by the avalanche of technological novelties that allow consumers to control their entertainment on iPods, cellphones or the Internet.
There is no standard model for placements; in some cases, story lines involving a specific product are pitched to a relevant company that can then buy its product's way into the scene; in other cases, companies suggest their products for a show. One Los Angeles broker has set up a matchmaking website so potential partners can find one another. Another company has specialized in digitally inserting brands into films and shows, allowing entertainment companies to sell the same space several times: On one film, for instance, one advertiser appeared in theaters, another on network television, another on basic cable and still another on DVD.
Costs range "all over the map," depending on the number of episodes and what the production is asked to do with the product, said Tom Meyer, president of Davie-Brown Entertainment, whose clients have paid for more than 50 placements and integrations. "A car manufacturer might be willing to pay $100,000 to $150,000 to show the mirror turns upside down. Going in and completely crafting a whole segment from scratch where the brand is a key player could be a million bucks." As the level of control over the message goes down, so does the cost. "If it's subliminal, it's not worth quite as much," he said.
"It really feels like a win-win," Newman said. "What we have to be careful about is not overdoing it." He said Toyota financed new scenes shot for a two-season DVD of "24" in which Jack and colleague Chloe each drove a Toyota. The villains tended to drive another type of car.
Producer Ben Silverman said "The Restaurant" accelerated the trend in 2003 by using advertisers, including American Express, Coors and Mitsubishi, to fully finance the show in return for playing a visible role in the televised day-to-day work of entrepreneur Rocco DiSpirito. Producers then sold the show to NBC. "It enabled us to make a show we couldn't get financed in a traditional way. NBC and NBC Universal Television chief Jeff Zucker were open to trying an alternative way to get a new kind of programming on the air," Silverman said. He has since produced four more shows fully financed by brands.
No quantitative studies have yet proven the effect of product integration.