Advertising and editorial cosied-up closer yet in a deal announced last weekend between the ABC Television Network and WPP Group's media agency MindShare North America.

The alliance confers on the agency a degree of editorial influence unprecedented in recent years. Not since the early days of television has it been possible for an advertiser to exert such control over the development of a show. Indeed, the term 'soap opera' was coined in the late 1940s when P&G became the first company to harness its brands to TV sponsorship.

ABC, a unit of the Walt Disney Company, will welcome the chance to share the hefty cost of developing scripted shows; while MindShare will benefit from the integration of its clients' products and values into story treatments. And for the latter there is the added carrot of incremental profits from any show that becomes a ratings hit.

The jointly-produced programs will angle for a broad family audience -- exactly the mix ABC has been targeting over the past twelve months with comedies such as Hope & Faith and Eight Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.

Unilever and Sears Roebuck, both MindShare clients, have already expressed interest in the ABC arrangement, claims the agency's president/ceo Marc Goldstein.

But not everybody is over the moon at the arrangement. It is certainly not to the liking of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit group co-founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader, which has recently asked the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to probe current product placement practices on TV.

Such practices are "inherently deceptive", opines CA's executive director Gary Ruskin, speaking of the concept in general. He is concerned that such deals could transform programs into nothing more than infomercials.

MindShare's Goldstein plays down such fears, assuring that any product placement will be "tasteful." Nor is the practice "a large part of this play," insists ABC president Alex Wallau. It will be used "if product integration makes sense [but] it will not drive the screenwriting, it will not drive the creative process".

Data sourced from: The Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff