See It, Buy It!

"Survivor" finalists in "Got Milk?" ad: (l-r) Kelly Wiglesworth, Rudy Boesch, Richard Hatch and Susan Hawk, 8-22-00
CBS President Les Moonves said Monday that product placement will inevitably grow more common on network television with the advent of digital video recorders that let viewers skip commercials.

But he said some TV series, particularly dramas, would prove more resistant to in-show advertising than "reality" fare such as "Survivor" and "Big Brother," where brand names of soft drinks, beer, sneakers and cars already proliferate.

"I do think it takes away from the purity of the comedy or the drama," Moonves said at the opening of the annual summer Television Critics Association press tour, where the major networks showcase their new shows for the fall season. "When you're dealing with a 'Survivor' or an 'Amazing Race' or a 'Big Brother,' it sort of fits in. ... It works."

Advertisers themselves may be less willing to hawk their wares on some shows than others, Moonves added, citing CBS' top-rated drama and its biggest hit comedy as examples.

" 'CSI ('Crime Scene Investigation') is a tougher show to have product placement on than 'Everybody Loves Raymond,' it just is," he said. "How do you do an autopsy and have a Diet Coke next to it?"

The CBS "Survivor" franchise has become one of the most blatant purveyors of product placement in prime time, with its contestants wearing brand-name footwear or winning brand-name beverages and snacks as rewards for successful "challenges."

"Contestants jumping up and down because they have a beer as a reward, and they think it's like the greatest liquid that they ever drank in their life ... that's probably more effective than having some model say, 'Hey, drink Bud Light,"' Moonves said.

This summer's critics tour comes amid growing concern among broadcasters over spiraling production costs, an increasingly fragmented TV audience, and the threat posed by TiVo Inc. , SONICblue Inc.'s ReplayTV, and similar devices that allow viewers to bypass ads.

Although the six major networks raked in "upfront" advertising revenue for the coming season reportedly valued at a near-record $8 billion, only two networks — NBC and CBS — turned a profit last year. The changing economics of television has led all the networks to rethink the basics of decades-old business models. CBS is a unit of Viacom Inc. while NBC is owned by General Electric Co.

The impact of digital video recorders on commercial television has so far been negligible, Moonves said, though he acknowledged that advertisers would eventually feel the pinch as TiVo and related services grow in popularity.

And that, Moonves said, would drive the imperative for greater use of product placement, which he noted was highly visible in the recent hit film "Minority Report," directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Cruise.

"If Steven Spielberg can do it, I guess we can do it," Moonves said. "You have to look at this source of revenue."

Moonves said he had about 20 meetings with advertisers to discuss product placement last season, as compared to only about three such meetings the year before.

"We've spoken to advertising agencies and individual clients, we've spoken to car companies about having ("CSI: Miami" star) David Caruso drive a Cadillac or whatever," Moonves said. "We've looked at those sorts of things, and I think that probably is inevitable, some of that happening."

For now, TiVo and ReplayTV have "not affected our ratings one iota," Moonves said, adding that until they do, drama series will likely remain relatively free of product placement.

"As soon as it gets to the point where there's critical mass, and our advertisers are feeling like they're not getting their bang for the buck, they're not getting their 30 seconds' worth ... that's the time when you'll see Diet Coke on 'CSI,' " he said.

By Steve Gorman