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'Fly Girls' gives Virgin America first-class product placement

The upcoming CW series about the lives of a real group of female flight attendants who happen to work for the airline is a dream come true for company chief Richard Branson, who may guest star.

January 10, 2010|By T. L. Stanley

Could there be a better advertisement for a brash, young company than to have a network TV series built around it, starring five of its gorgeous female employees and their impossibly glamorous lives? Probably not.

The trick for "Fly Girls," then, will be to steer clear of infomercial territory, even though Virgin America serves as the backdrop of the reality show and its de facto sixth cast member. The hip, Richard Branson-backed airline looms large in the upcoming CW series, but the real focus is the massive amounts of melodrama surrounding the single, 20-something flight attendants who live together in a Los Angeles "crash pad" while partying, dating and jet-setting across the country.

"Virgin has given us a very long leash," said Colin Nash, one of the show's executive producers. "They don't push their logo; they don't try to influence the stories. We're able to capture what's really going on in these girls' lives."

For just a sneak peek at that, there's a breakup with a wanna-be rock star, a single mom's difficult balancing act, agonizing on-again-off-again romances and, of course, infighting. Getting a "Gossip Girl"-meets- "The Hills"-vibe yet? Producers say the emotion, passion and conflict won't be interrupted with 30-second messages about Virgin's extensive in-flight entertainment and free WiFi, no matter how cool that happens to be.

"I don't want too much branding in the show -- it has to succeed based on the concept," said Porter Gale, Virgin America's vice president of marketing. "At the same time, I think this series can build awareness and drive sales, especially as we expand to new markets. Our ad budget is tiny compared to our competitors, and this gives us potential exposure and reach with no out-of-pocket expense."

Two-year-old Virgin America, now in 10 markets with plans to be in 50 cities within the next five years, did not pay for its product placement in "Fly Girls," though the production crew flies free during shooting. The company is an active collaborator on the series, though, vetting cast members during open auditions, educating the production crew about airline regulations and giving notes on the episodes. Gale serves as co-executive producer, but Nash, his team and network executives have the final say in what will appear on the half-hour show, slated for a March premiere.

It's rare to have a real corporation as a prominent character in an unscripted series. There have been a few workplace-based reality shows that gave glimpses of both mom-and-pop and national companies, such as NBC's "The Apprentice," Fox's "The Simple Life" and CBS' "I Get That a Lot," which places well-known talent in menial customer-service jobs. And a few years ago, A&E's documentary-style "Airline" centered on the people flying and working on bargain carrier Southwest, with some memorable emphasis on drunk and unruly passengers.

But the face time alone that Virgin America will bank over eight episodes puts it in a class by itself. "Fly Girls," filming in hot spots such as New York, Miami and Las Vegas, is intended to appeal to the CW's core 18-to-34-year-old female demographic much in the same way as the channel's " America's Next Top Model."

The marketing-savvy airline, known for using its own employees in its ads and promotional events, stages press-ready stunts like in-flight live concerts and celebrity-filled parties, which are likely to find their way into the series. Branson, a master showman who recently unveiled the world's first commercial passenger spacecraft under his Virgin Galactic brand, may appear.

He's not the only big personality in the mix. Among the Fly Girls themselves -- namely, Mandy, Farrah, Nikole, Tasha and Louise, a mini- United Nations of races and ethnicities -- there are "a lot of alpha females, which creates volatility," said Kristen Vadas, the network's senior vice president of alternative programming.

"Fly Girls" is weighted toward its stars' personal lives and downtime, with roughly one-third of the action happening on planes and in airports. But they can't really be separated from their chosen profession, Nash said, because it helps define them. It means they're able to fly cross-country to parties and rub elbows with young Hollywood because of how they earn their paycheck.

Case in point: On a recent weeknight, part of the cast went to a party for Snoop Dogg's latest CD release in Hollywood while Mandy and Farrah hit a United We Care breast cancer charity event a few blocks away at Beso, the Eva Longoria-owned restaurant-club. As well-dressed guests mingled and top-shelf liquor flowed, three cameras followed Mandy and Farrah around the gathering to capture their conversations over the clinking martini glasses and the blaring sound system.

As for the jaded industry crowd, no one paid much attention to the on-site production crew, or pretended they didn't notice, but Farrah, a petite blond, readily admitted it's a strange way to live.

"I find myself to be a very private person, and in the beginning I was so stiff around the cameras," she said. "I was so aware of them. But I'm adjusting. I figured, when will I ever have an experience like this again?"

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