The Sponsor Moves In

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So far, MindShare figures that what works best is keeping its clients' messages subtle. The advertisers, Unilever and Sears, will share in the profits, and they get a preferred position in commercial spots and a certain amount of product placement within the show. "We made a conscious decision not to be too aggressive about product placement because we don't want viewers to feel the show is overcommercialized," says Tortorici. If The Days goes into syndication, MindShare and its partners make the lion's share of the profits. While ABC stands to make less, it carries no risk — and the network gets a shot at a hit.

The networks and Madison Avenue are closely watching The Days for possible lessons. MindShare, its advertisers and Tollin/Robbins Productions, which developed the script and is executive producer of the series, have slashed costs by using relatively unknown actors and handheld high-definition cameras. At about $1.35 million, each episode costs roughly two-thirds the amount of a standard show. But despite the financial benefits, there are some questions about the long-term effect on creative decisions if advertisers control content. ABC's Pedowitz insists that creative approval remains with the network, even in the case of a plot line involving the teenage daughter's dilemma over whether to have an abortion, an issue more sensitive than sponsors might be comfortable with. "Time will tell," says media consultant Erwin Ephron. "But what this new MindShare model underscores is that people are willing to do things they haven't been willing to do in the past." It may be a matter of survival.

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