The company that brought cable TV viewers shows such as "Monster Garage" and "Monster House" is ready with another concept: monster merchandising.
Burbank-based Original Productions LLC launched its own product placement, licensing and merchandising arm called O'Merch in January.
Product placement the paid-for presence of an item in a film or TV program is hardly a new concept. Some in the industry suggest it's nearing the saturation point, in fact. But Original Productions is attempting to take the idea further by not only selling spots within its own shows but by marketing positions on other companies' productions, too.
"It's really a great way to offset production costs," said Tim Beers, president of O'Merch and chief financial officer of Original Productions. "We use shows as a runway to launch the products."
Created in 1998, Original Productions began to appreciate the value of product placement when its own properties and co-productions with the Discovery Channel began to hit the air.
For example, "Monster House," a show dedicated to a themed house overhaul, used a hot tub from Cal Spas in one Zen-inspired home renovation. Branded tools and home improvement supplies turned up on the show, too.
Execs decided to spin off O'Merch, which now has about eight employees, after the work generated enough revenue to warrant breaking out a separate entity. O'Merch has agreements with Newman International Group of Australia, an independent licensing company, and Iikonn Brands Group, a privately held brand management, licensing and consulting firm in Pasadena.
Original Productions' latest series, set to launch on Discovery's sister network The Learning Channel this spring, will be the first to benefit from the efforts of O'Merch.
The reality series is called "The Messengers" and it is dedicated to finding America's next great motivational and inspirational speaker think "The Apprentice" trolling for Tony Robbins.
The show will feature a "Messengers"-branded bus ferrying contestants around Los Angeles. Also planned are a slew of other tie-ins including a clothing line (embroidered with Don't Shoot the "Messenger") and a "Magic 8 Ball"-type toy to deliver inspirational messages.
Some purists object to placing products on creative grounds, but others have practical concerns. Will viewers stay tuned if they think they're watching a hybrid commercial?
And is the advertising effective? For example, will viewers buy slickers worn by the crewman on the company's Learning Channel crab-fishing saga, "The Deadliest Catch"?
"From a production standpoint, we try to have fun implementing it, but the challenge is to try to do it organically," said David McKillop, vice president of production for Discovery's U.S. networks. "If it ends up looking hokey, then that's not good for us at all. (Original Productions) is very savvy and so far it's been very good, but it's not an easy thing to do."
Beers stressed that the non-scripted nature of Original's productions documentary-style reality series makes it difficult to hawk products that compromise the integrity of the shows.
"People will always be turned off if it's something that doesn't fit or even something they just don't like," Beers said. "Most viewers don't have a concept of it if it's organic. It can't be thrown in their face, because nobody wants to be bombarded with products."
The placement of products has never been more prevalent in TV and features films. The Writer's Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild want product placements to be disclosed at the beginning of television shows and movies and they want a cut of what are often hefty placement fees. In September, the WGA called for a code of conduct governing the practice that would give actors, writers and directors more say in product use.
Beers declined to discuss specific revenue projections for the new company. He said the goal is for O'Merch to bring in at least 50 percent of its revenue by working with production companies other than Original Productions. O'Merch is already in discussions with "a number of other companies" about using the company's services, though Beers said it was too early to release the names.
O'Merch isn't targeting national level sponsors sought by the broadcast networks, instead it's aiming to place smaller regional brands that have thousands of dollars to spend on a cable channel episode, rather than millions.
"There's an awful lot of local or California companies that are a great fit for this, so we're really going after more of the low-hanging fruit," Beers said. "We're looking for, say, $5,000 or $10,000 an episode to get the product on TV and make a little money."
Beers said the creation of O'Merch means that the process of wooing and signing potential clients will go much faster.
In addition, the licensees, or companies that want to hawk branded merchandise, such as T-shirts and trinkets, have a company to call.
"Now we can pitch to potential licensees before a show launches," Beers said. Of course, if the show gets canceled quickly, the licensee is stuck with goods that aren't so good.
On the other hand, said Beers, "If you get good ratings numbers and you get re-upped after four episodes, then the licensee is looking at the rest of this season and next. That's worth a lot, since the real risk in TV is cancellation."
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