NBC Universal starts a new, branded lineup
Having flirted with branded entertainment last year, NBC Universal is preparing a full lineup of original online videos that blur the line between content and advertising. It announced the first of these productions today: a series of webisodes called "CTRL," based on the 2007 short film "CTRL Z." The series, like the original film, was written and directed by Rob Kirbyson. But the plot has been augmented to give a featured role to Nestea, the Coca-Cola Co. brand that sponsored the production.
The idea behind branded entertainment is to replace interruptive commercials with an integrated message promoting the sponsor's product(s). Cameron Death, vice president of digital content for NBC Universal, said the company tried that approach for the first time with last year's "Gemini Division," a sci-fi whodunit starring Rosario Dawson. Five different brands were featured in the course of the series' 65 short episodes. To find sponsors for this year's programming, Death said in an interview, the company took a slate of programs in development to advertisers in January, then worked with the programs' creators to integrate the brands into the videos.
"CTRL 7" was the story of a beleaguered office worker named Stuart who discovered that he could control the action around him through commands on his computer keyboard. Think of how you might use keyboard shortcuts in a document or photo editing program; that gives you an idea of how Stuart edited reality. For the 10 new episodes, Kirbyson kept the same story line, with one twist: Stuart unlocks the powers of his keyboard by accidentally spilling a can of Nestea Red onto it. The point is to subtly convey that Nestea is "Liquid Awesomeness," as its trademarked tagline goes.
Death said Kirbyson was given "complete free rein" to tell the story as he wished, with the provison that he find a way to work Nestea into it. The sponsor consulted with NBC Universal on how its brand would be portrayed, Death said, "but it's still a writer's product." That's the company's general approach to branded entertainment: although the program creators are briefed about the brand and the attributes the sponsor wants to promote, "we still want them to do what they do, which is tell great stories." He added that "CTRL" is a good example of what branded entertainment isn't: "It isn't Stuart looking straight into the camera and talking about how great Nestea Red is."
To some media watchdogs, that's precisely the problem. They complain that the practice isn't transparent enough, and should be more clearly labeled as advertising. Not surprisingly, Death disagreed. "I think viewers are infinitely more intelligent than we sometimes give them credit for," he said. For Coca-Cola to reap the full benefits of its sponsorship, "CTRL" fans need to know that Nestea is bringing it to them -- and viewers are smart enough to understand that. "It's a really interesting balance," he said. "I don't think there's anything less honest about it."
NBC Universal plans to distribute "CTRL" this summer through a variety of channels, including Hulu.com, cable video-on-demand services and a dedicated website. Death was coy about the rest of this year's digital line-up, saying only, "We have a lot in the pipeline."
Credit: Image of the short film "CTRL Z" courtesy of the film's website.