The reality-TV genre has long been on the forefront of brand integration, with shows like Survivor and Extreme Makeover: Home Edition incorporating multiple products into episodes over the course of years. It’s rarer for a show to be built around a single brand, as is the case with NBC’s Escape Routes, which centers on the 2013 Ford Escape. The primetime network series, now nearing the end of its six-week, Saturday-night run, was conceived and produced by Ford and its Team Detroit agency after years of experimentation in the branded content arena on TV and online.
Here, executives from Ford, Team Detroit, and NBC walk us through the business, creative, and production story behind this unprecedented branded primetime network series.
Crystal Worthem, manager of brand content and alliances at Ford, explains that the company started really experimenting with social media in 2009 with its "Fiesta Movement," in which cars were given to 100 socially influential people who tracked their use on Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube. Last year, Ford did its first show, Focus Rally, on Hulu: Six teams competed in challenges all over the country while driving a 2012 Ford Focus and chronicling their adventures via social media. With all the primary qualities in place—social media stars as contestants, Emmy-winning producers of The Amazing Race behind the scenes—that show wound up paving the way for Ford to make Escape Routes.
Of course, the carmaker has been a major player in the branded content space on television for years, with ongoing integrations into American Idol, The Amazing Race and, most recently, Alcatraz. Those experiences helped the company find its product placement groove (once it got those cheesy videos out of their system, that is).
"We came to realize with the Fiesta Movement that if we gave these people vehicles for this amount of time and we gave them little missions to do, everything else is just them living their life in this car and telling the world about it," says Worthem. "We didn’t create commercials or anything. It was all grassroots groundswell, and at the end of that program we found that the Fiesta had higher awareness, like nameplate awareness, and on a brand-new vehicle no less. So if we can do that online with no traditional advertising, what could we do if we pumped it up a bit?"
So they created Focus Rally. "It had much more actual original content. It was more competitive, reality type content, and we partnered with Hulu to get to the scale," she says. "It was the first time Hulu had ever had a branded show, so it was a great first for us and it got us a much bigger scale. So, of course, we were like, ‘Great, now what’s the biggest scale? Primetime TV.’"
"Some of the industry’s most well-known producers are behind Escape Routes," says Jim Hoffman, executive vice president of sales and marketing for NBC, who would not have trusted just anyone to produce a show for the network. But since Ford enlisted Profiles—a production company run by Elise Doganieri, one of the forces behind CBS’s Amazing Race—to cast, produce, and edit the show, NBC could hardly say no. Continues Hoffman: "We’ve worked with clients in the past on similar efforts, most notably a partnership with Walmart and P&G for a series of family-friendly movies. However, these types of deals are not for everyone; they’re not easy to do and are evaluated on a case-by-case basis."
After working with Ford on the Focus Rally series for Hulu, recalls Doganieri, "Ford came to us and said, 'Do you think we can get a network to go for this? I said, 'Let’s do it and find out!'"
All the Escape Routes contestants already have a following online (for instance, Brett and Ross are best friends who make YouTube videos together), which gives Escape Routes a built-in base audience for the show’s online components. Online followers can participate in aspects of challenges (hosted online by Internet star iJustine) which they can then see play out on television in a unique and innovative merging of online and offline elements. Of course, there is a side effect of web fame. "They are all competitive and type A and they will just sit in their cars screaming—for no reason, really, or because they’re going into the house and finding their rooms," says Doganieri. In other words, they’re like any reality competition participant, only more so. "They’re marketing mavens themselves," says the producer, who recognized the value they bring in cultivating viewers. "They’re creating their own armies of followers."
Most reality shows are shot months before they air, making the outcome foregone, or nearly so, once viewers get their first glimpse. But Escape Routes twists this model in a rather new way. This show isn’t just a TV show, it’s an ongoing, interactive online experience. Those who really want to dive in and participate online can see the show as it unfolds and be more a part of the action (at times rules of a challenge will call for contestants to find a place without using the car’s GPS but they can elicit information from their online teammates based on limited info that they already know), with a chance to win themselves. That way, they have a stake in it.
Naturally, features of the coming 2013 iteration of the Ford Escape—such as the "hands-free liftgate," whereby users can wave their foot at a sensor under the back of the car to open the keyless hatch—are on display, but Worthem seems to be happy to have the contestants using them and talking about them in more real ways than a regular commercial might ("That kicky thing" is what one contestant termed the feature). And with road-tripping and getting around your home city an integral part of the brand message here, Ford has clearly concocted a show that seamlessly incorporates its product’s best assets.
In addition to co-branding with online personalities, Ford has teamed up with other products. The online component of Escape Routes was kicked off last fall with a nationwide Words with Friends game. That’s when Ford started engaging online followers in the competition. The partnership with Zynga, maker of Words, continued on the first TV episode of the show, in which the "urban challenge" had all 12 contestants gathering on a rooftop in downtown Los Angeles for a non-virtual round of Zynga’s game Hangman with Friends. Online "teammates" participated by submitting words to be used in the competition.
"This might take them down a notch," jokes Kerry Doyle, group planning director of brand and content alliances for Team Detroit, as she surveys the scene atop that roof in downtown L.A., where contestants are getting ready to literally hang off the side of the building and be lowered with each incorrect letter guess.
Desperate timeslots call for desperate measures. And no television timeslot is in a more desperate state than Saturday nights. Long gone is the heyday of CBS’s best-ever Saturday evenings in 1973, which was filled with classics: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and The Carol Burnett Show; or even ABC’s less-stellar but still-must-see Saturday night trifecta of T.J. Hooker, The Love Boat, and Fantasy Island, in 1982-1983.
In recent years, networks have done away with all original programming at the close of the week, filling Saturday nights with cast-offs and repeats, burning off episodes of failed series (like The Firm) and doing second runs of originals from sister cablers, as NBC has been doing with Bravo’s Fairly Legal. "We think the program adds an exciting element to Saturday nights, which typically features a lot of repeat programming," says NBC’s Hoffman.
And since the show is doing nearly as well in the ratings as those Fairly Legal reruns—Escape Routes has averaged about 1.1 million viewers in its first three weeks on air—the numbers are not world-changing, but they’re probably good enough to justify the cost. Worthem says that Escape Routes doesn’t follow the traditional ownership model—NBC doesn’t pay a licensing fee to air the show but Ford doesn’t foot the bill all by itself. Instead, she terms it a hybrid partnership, in which the car company buys ads all over NBC and as part of that overall relationship produces this show, which NBC in turn sells ads for other advertisers on.