- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 23, 2002

Could Tom Brokaw Ripple be far behind?
NBC has struck a deal with Baskin-Robbins to create a line of official network ice cream flavors just in case viewers need a little spoon-feeding. It's all a case of must-taste TV, according to NBC, which begins the new promotion in September.
It's curious, gooey stuff.
The offerings include "Fear Factor Sundae," "Will & Grace's Rocky Road of Romance," "Good Morning Miami Mint" and "Pralines 'n' American Dreams," among others all in the name of pervasive cross-marketing in a cluttered marketplace. There will be ads on NBC, cable channels and Entertainment Weekly, not to mention sweepstakes and prizes.
And yes, the NBC flavors will be in 4,500 Baskin-Robbins stores until the end of October, when they will be sent to the company's burgeoning repository of retired flavors 1,000 strong at this point.
"There's no such thing as a captive audience anymore. Networks have to get very inventive to get their message out," said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Center for the Study of Popular Television. "They're promoting TV programs as lifestyles. It can be pretty seductive."
But not too seductive.
"There are limits," Mr. Thompson said. "The networks would be ill-advised to promote serious news programming this way. I don't anticipate the Bill O'Reilly Pizza appearing at Pizza Hut, though we might see Katie Couric Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream one day. This is something the morning news shows could get away with."
Which is not to say NBC has a moratorium on news marketing. The network sells a Tim Russert baseball cap for $18, an NBC News travel mug for $16 and a matching T-shirt for $20. Such merchandise is standard fare at other broadcast stations and cable news channels.
Still, shrill promotional campaigns frame news correspondents as celebrity journalists, hammering on their "professionalism" or news judgement. Charisma and connections are acceptable attributes; appearance and sex appeal are not, as CNN found out after advertising anchor Paula Zahn as "smart and sexy" last year.
The nervy campaign inspired much righteous hubbub and was pulled from the air in 48 hours. Meanwhile, entertainment promotions remain baroque as networks cope with a sluggish advertising market, which dropped 10 percent last year.
"It's sort of a real estate exchange," NBC's John Miller told Advertising Age when describing the network's ice cream alliance.
And it does get creative. Wendy's got talk show host Rosie O'Donnell to eat and plug one of their salads on NBC earlier this year. And Baskin-Robbins ice creams are already incorporated into hip MTV programming.
"Oh, this stuff goes really far back for them," Mr. Thompson notes. "I have a poster for the 'Love Boat Sundae' with all the show's stars in a big dish together back when Baskin-Robbins was in bed with ABC around 1980. I wonder, though, about promoting 'Fear Factor' with ice cream."
But nothing will surprise him as news programs take on entertainment trappings to get their brand across.
"The old 'Camel News Caravan' debuted on NBC in 1948 and ran for seven years, sponsored by a cigarette company and hosted by John Cameron Swayze, a real major news guy," Mr. Thompson said. "Who knows? We may see something similar as things get more cutthroat."


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