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On TV, merchandise gets a starring role

When Bravo’s “NYC Prep,” hit the airwaves earlier this summer, it looked like any other unscripted reality show, this one following a pack of privileged Upper East Side private-school girls. But there was one very unreal -- make that surreal -- category of merchandise making its debut in the midst of all the teen angst: a quartet of $595 leather handbags named for, and carried in the show by, each of the four female leads.

A collaboration between the accessories line Kooba and Bravo TV, the bags included the navy blue leather Camille (“made for a girl with high standards”) and the Taylor bag (designed for someone who can “sashay into any social scene”).

No matter that the pricey purses were nothing more than existing Kooba styles rendered in new colors -- the joint effort managed to crack through the clutter of more traditional product placement and had style blogs buzzing to boot.

According to industry experts, when it comes to fashion, Bravo’s bags are barely the tip of the product-integration iceberg. The not-too-far-future holds the promise of fashion-plot mash-ups that could turn a “Mad Men” ad campaign for London Fog raincoats into a real-life London Fog ad campaign or transform the dresses designed by a “Gossip Girl” into a product line at a store near you.

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As commercial-skipping, time-shifting viewers cut into the traditional revenue model of cable and network television, a line-blurring approach to merchandising what’s seen on the small screen suggests the possibility of a new revenue stream. And a new way to shop.

“Studios and networks are now facing the same problems the music world is going through,” said Stephanie Savage, an executive producer and writer on the CW’s “Gossip Girl.” “And the music world responded with, ‘Well, if we’re not selling records anymore, then what else can we sell and still be artist-based and in the realm of music?’

“That’s why you’ve got things like Dr. Dre headphones and ring tones, and Gwen Stefani and Justin Timberlake have clothing lines.”

Television, Savage said, “will likely undergo a similar shift where the [work] becomes less about producing shows that are going to be licensed to and watched on a broadcast network and more about finding other revenue streams.”

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Currently, Savage said, it’s helpful to divide fashion tie-ins, cameos and partnerships into two camps: “inside the show” and “outside the show.”

“Outside” is about raising awareness -- trying to reach an audience that might not have seen the show. That strategy explains last season’s “Gossip Girl” partnership with Bluefly.com, which consisted of a portal on the online retailer’s site that allowed a customer to shop a character’s “look.” In return, a Bluefly bag appeared on-screen in one scene, and a character is shown shopping on the site in another.

This season, the retail partnership kicks it up a notch. The show returns to TV on Monday night, the day after a “Gossip Girl"-inspired, Anna Sui for Target collection debuts exclusively at the department store. (Target is the sponsor of the season premiere, and the first commercial for the collection airs during the show.) Savage said the only consideration involved was promotional exposure -- no money changed hands.

AMC’s recent marketing partnership with Banana Republic is another “outside the show” fashion tie-in. The cable channel’s promotion put “Mad Men” posters in the windows of Banana Republic stores across the country and an eight-page style guide in the hands of customers to help them create the show’s signature early ‘60s Madison Avenue look from the chain’s existing merchandise. (Never mind that much of the show’s look comes from Brooks Brothers, which has outfitted many of the men of the fictional Sterling Cooper ad agency over the last three seasons.)

The “inside the show” strategy is exactly what it sounds like -- direct placement of people or product within the confines of the show’s story arc. Said Savage, “Having [designers] Tory [Burch] and [Marchesa’s] Georgina [Chapman] playing themselves . . . is a great association for us. It cements us in this Women’s Wear Daily editorial space.”

“Gossip Girl” is not alone with its “inside the show” strategy. “NYC Prep” sent one of its New York City teens -- and aspiring fashion publicists -- padding around New York Fashion Week and interning for designer Carmen Marc Valvo.

And as far as actually harvesting the fruits of the television-fashion synergy, Bravo seems to be leading the pack. On “The Fashion Show,” the cable network’s “Project Runway” replacement, which premiered May 7, winning designs were offered up on Bravo’s website every week (and shipped with a personal note from the designer as well as styling tips).

And Bravo recently inked deals to merchandise knives, floral arrangements and wine from “Top Chef” and will move further into fashion with this fall’s “Launch My Line,” a reality show that will see one established fashion designer and one wannabe launch the latter’s line for public consumption.

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‘Mad’ moves

Product placement, of course, remains a trend in television, but it’s not always clear when a coat or a bottle of liquor is used merely for authenticity -- or as a revenue-generator.

AMC’s “Mad Men” is stocked with names that resonate with authenticity -- and may or may not be product placements. (Last month Charlie Collier, AMC president and general manager, spoke to Brandweek about the show’s product integration, saying: “You shouldn’t know which ones are paid and which ones aren’t.”)

Brand cameos have included Lucky Strike, Kodak, Degree antiperspirant and Heineken. This season’s season premiere included shout-outs to Stolichnaya vodka and a plot line involving the aforementioned London Fog brand, for which characters Don Draper and Sal Romano create a risque ad campaign featuring a woman clad only in a trench coat baring it all to a subway rider, with the tag line, “Limit your exposure.”)

“We didn’t pay a penny for product integration,” said Dari Marder, chief marketing officer for Iconix Brand Group, the licensing company that bought London Fog in 2006. “Though in full transparency, they did originally approach us about that.”

Nonetheless, Marder was more than impressed with the outcome. “When I heard Don Draper say that line: ‘Limit your exposure,’ I thought that was pretty genius, so we’re actually thinking it might be an ad campaign we could get behind -- life imitating art imitating life.”

But her enthusiasm was dampened by something even the most protective London Fog trench can’t insulate against -- the challenges of time.

“We’re going to have to jump on this quickly if we do it,” Marder said soon after the episode first aired. “Timing is everything -- the closer [to air date] that we can execute, the better it is for everybody.”

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The meshing of fashion and television is complicated, said Savage, especially for scripted fare. “A studio that’s designed to make television shows is not a studio designed to make a fashion line, so a lot of times we have ideas for things we might want to do but don’t necessarily have the infrastructure to do them in a timely manner.”

The major networks are also talking about it. “We have similar things coming down the pike,” said Liz Kalodner, vice president and general manager of CBS Consumer Products. She wouldn’t give specifics, but pointed to recent co-branding efforts of limited-edition OPI nail polish nail with “Melrose Place” and a Wal-Mart clothing line inspired by “America’s Next Top Model” (both of which air on the jointly owned CBS/Time Warner CW Network).

Like Savage, Kalodner says the biggest remaining problem is melding the two industries. “The only challenge then becomes marrying the shooting schedule with the retail schedule -- in many cases you’re talking about apparel and that’s seasonal -- you have to marry the spring collection with a show that takes place in the fall.”

In the future, Savage envisions the fashion-television relationship working more seamlessly: “You’d create a relationship, with either a designer from outside or the costume designer of your own show, empower that person to come up with a line of clothing that would be featured on the show, and already have the mechanism in place to have it produced and distributed with either a retail partner or exclusively online.”

When asked how far in the future that kind of synergy might be realized, Savage said, “I think the next show, or next cycle of shows I do.”

In the meantime, Kalodner isn’t waiting for that wrinkle to be ironed out -- she also thinks the future of fashion on TV can be found by mining the past. “Think about home furnishings inspired by Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s living room [on “I Love Lucy”]. And we have a new line of ‘Star Trek’ shoes at Payless coming out this fall that are inspired by the red, yellow and blue [Starfleet] uniforms.”

Who knew that seeking out strange new synergies and boldly going where no fashion tie-in has gone before would be as close as the bridge of the Starship Enterprise?

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adam.tschorn@latimes.com


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