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NBC knows mixing ads into Web shows is risky

Online video viewers don't like preroll ads, so NBC is experimenting with incorporating advertising into the shows themselves. Will audiences feel manipulated?


Executives at NBC Universal know they must walk a fine line in creating a Web series designed to showcase an advertiser's product or service. To some, it sounds like a recipe for disaster.

"If it's cheesy," said Vivi Zigler, NBC's executive vice president of digital entertainment and new media, "if it doesn't fit, if it's inappropriate, it won't work for us. It won't work for the brand. We're dead."

The network on Friday said it has directed writers, producers, and actors including Rosario Dawson to create stories that incorporate brands, such as Microsoft, Intel, and Cisco Systems into the story lines.

Like many other Web sites that offer video, NBC Universal is searching for new ways to pitch ads to Internet users, a group that has been reluctant to accept Web commercials.

The big question is, how will the network avoid alienating audiences if writers have to cuddle up to brands? I can't imagine how hard it would be to write an entertaining script while trying to tuck a commercial into the plot--and, indeed, executives at NBC Universal said they can do it.

Cameron Death (pronounced deeth), NBC Universal's vice president of digital content, said the network will start by learning what message the advertisers want to convey and which consumer groups they want to reach. "We work with the brands to get right insights and then use our history of storytelling at NBC," Death said, "to make it come alive in the viewers' imagination."

Death and Zigler declined to discuss specifics about how the brands will be displayed, but Zigler said it won't be traditional product placement. "This is not about a soda on a table and having someone take a sip," Zigler said. "This is about organic storytelling."

The first show, called Gemini Division, is a sci-fi thriller starring Dawson. She's a New York City cop who stumbles on a conspiracy to replace humans with clones. The show, which is expected to appear at video portal Hulu, will unfold over 50 four-minute episodes starting this summer.

NBC is also testing the advertising in-show strategy on TV, but Zigler said the Web is the perfect place for experimentation.

"We can get high production values on digital and still be cheaper than TV," Zigler said. "It gives us an opportunity to try some new things, and we won't break the bank."