Elevator pitch for a TV pilot: Ordinary folks searching for long estranged loved ones or birth parents are paired with reporters who help them look, using Google. The information leads them on a quest across the country or perhaps around the world – ending, hopefully, with an emotional meeting. The title: "Google Reunion."
Wait a minute – change that to "Bing Reunion" and maybe we've got ourselves a deal.
“It’s a convergence of advertising and story-telling,” Ben Silverman, whose media company, Electus, is working on the project, told The Times.
It's also a tad creepy.
Microsoft is clearly aiming to take product placement to a new level by building a show around a commodity. The competition, part of this week’s New York Television Festival, reflects a changing relationship between commerce and creativity in which advertising and entertainment are at risk of eventually becoming indistinguishable.
Microsoft treaded in and out of similar territory last year when it announced plans for a comedy special by "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane that essentially would have been an infomercial for Windows 7. The company scrapped its involvement, reportedly after learning of some of the raunchier material planned by MacFarlane.
With declining network audiences and more people skipping through commercials thanks to DVRs, TV executives unquestionably face new challenges in keeping sponsors happy. But can they find new ways to make money without alienating viewers?
Product placement is generally annoying, though it occasionally can be amusing, as evidenced by the clever running "Snapple" bit on "30 Rock" a while back. Even if the audience is in on the joke, the gag threatens to get old real quick (we're still waiting for the punchline about the proliferation of Coors signs and bottles in last week's season premiere of "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia").
The Bing TV bid also taps into the ongoing melding of the Internet and more traditional entertainment media. This past weekend’s Nickelodeon movie featuring screeching YouTube character Fred Figglehorn proved a ratings hit, and “$#*! My Dad Says," the William Shatner sitcom inspired by a young man's Twitter feed is set to debut this week. Perhaps the fall movie season’s most talked about – online and otherwise – offering is "The Social Network," which purports to tell the story of Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg.
Meanwhile, Lady Gaga and Beyonce's steamy “Telephone” video, a nine-and-a-half-minute mini-epic packed with cheeky product placements, has logged 33 million views in six months. Go here to see it – and you just might encounter an ad for Bing.
We're forever grateful to Silverman, former NBC entertainment co-chairman, for bringing the U.S. version of "The Office" to TV. He helped create a brand – albeit a fictional one – in Dunder Mifflin, which has become a serio-comic symbol of the state of the U.S. economy and workplace dysfunction.
But we’re more than a little uncomfortable seeing real products directly dictate fictional (or even so-called reality-driven) content. In the long run, constraining writers with golden handcuffs almost certainly will mean a decline in quality.
In the short term, the key question raised by news of the Bing pilot competition is, will audiences buy a show built around an Internet search engine? You won’t find the answer on Bing – at least not yet.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.