The New Mini-Series

Stephanie is beautiful, wealthy, lives in a well-manicured suburb and is suspicious of her husband’s late-night activities. She’s a desperate housewife, only she hasn’t been scheming with Gabby and the gang. Stephanie is in “Another Desperate Housewife,” an eight-part, Sprint-sponsored commercial series for the Palm Pre now airing during the popular nighttime soap.

The ads — which work in tandem with the messaging in the “Now” campaign from Sprint agency Goodby, Silverstein & Partners and media agency partner Mindshare — have interesting collaborators: Desperate Housewives’ creator Marc Cherry and his writing team, who penned the scripts. And the network is not alone in sharing show talent: Sprint is also working with NBC on a collaboration with Heroes’ creator Tim Kring and his writers for a series within a series starring a new character, Lydia.

Marking one of the first times network show creators have worked hand-in-hand with their programs’ advertising, the moves point to the increasing challenges of DVR penetration and keeping those watching in real time trained on flat screens during commercial breaks — challenges obviously affecting the networks, advertisers and the shows themselves.

John Caruso, svp of TV network sales at ABC, notes the network has seen increased interest from both advertisers and show creators in taking brand sponsorships to deeper levels of show integration. “Advertisers are looking for new ways to engage with the consumer and get as close to our content as possible,” he says.

Combining hybrid ads with traditional advertising amplifies the brand and helps it be more competitive, says Simon McPhillips, director of media at Sprint. “Season by season [we’re] getting more and more sophisticated … and certainly getting much closer in [our] relationship with the [show] writers,” says McPhillips. “That’s really the only way you can ensure seamless integration so that it’s organic and natural to the viewer.”

In a YouTube video discussing the initiative, Cherry explains that when the network’s marketing group enlisted his help in coming up with “a whole new advertising strategy” for season six, he thought about the Taster’s Choice serial ads from the ’90s and wanted to take the concept “a step further” with Sprint.

“Another Desperate Housewife” was shot on the show’s set and incorporates its music and opening graphics. When viewers first met Stephanie in the 45-second clip that kicked off the mini-series within a series early this month, she was challenging her husband on his it’s-easier-to-sleep-at-the-office excuse for his previous night’s absence and snooping in his phone for clues. “This is suspicion,” informs the voiceover. “On the Now network.” Over the course of the season, the plot has been taking Wisteria Lane-like twists and turns, with the mobile device at the center of the action. The characters will later appear in the show to further tie the two together. Each ad ends with a call to action for viewers to use their Sprint phones to get an advance look at the following week’s episode of the ad series.

Sprint has worked with NBC on brand integration with Heroes in the past, including last season’s Create Your Own Hero promotion that had viewers vote for which new character would appear in an online series. This year’s integration includes a 10-spot series of 45-second clips starring Lydia, with a plot centering around her and her daughter.

It takes work “to get everyone comfortable [with the idea that] neither side’s goal is going to be to diluted,” says Denise Ocasio, managing director of Mindshare. “[If we’re] simply running spots, [we’re] never going to compete with our competitors on a dollar-per-dollar basis. We look for programs that have strong social ties, that have a buzz about them. [These shows’ audiences] are a dedicated, engaged group of consumers who are more likely to be receptive to messages about advanced technologies.”

Sprint’s McPhillips says the company is so far satisfied with the results, though he declines to give specific figures about these ad series or previous efforts. “Awareness and favorability go up significantly with [these mini ad series],” he says. “We also see that advertising placed around those shows tends to resonate in shows where we’re integrated. Ultimately it does lead to an increase in sales.”