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Leaning More on TV, AOL Inks Big Super Bowl Deal

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AOL no longer has its name on Time Warner stationary, but it will be all over Super Bowl XXXVIII on Jan. 25. The Internet company will take one of the game's most coveted positions as the presenting sponsor of the halftime telecast on CBS, part of a broad sports package AOL recently completed with the National Football League and its TV networks.

AOL's Super Bowl participation last year was limited to one play: a 15-second, fourth-quarter spot hyping the airing of all the game's commercials on the AOL service. Within 36 hours, 5.5 million people logged on to see the spots, said Len Short, evp of brand marketing. Meanwhile, TV is becoming more of a primary ad medium for AOL in its efforts to drive potential subscribers to its Web service and alert them to the benefits of its new 9.0 broadband service. In the next 12 months, AOL plans to more than double the $100 million it spent on TV over the past year.

"The brand needs to be out there more front and center," said Short, who negotiated the NFL deal along with AOL's media agency, Interpublic Group's Initiative Media, and Mark Dowley, chairman of IPG's Sports & Entertainment Group. "In the past, we were sitting back, and were letting the Internet drive demand, but we feel this is a more active way."

Omnicom's BBDO is lead creative shop on the $150 million account.

Short said AOL is also working with all the broadcast networks and assorted cable networks to come up with ways to drive TV viewers to the AOL site for content. One visible example of that has been a 30-second spot airing during the new Fox drama The O.C. The ad shows footage from a music video, and viewers can go to AOL to see the entire clip.

In addition to airing the Super Bowl ads on its service, AOL has struck deals with the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and Nascar to air various video highlights. It is also airing footage from CBS' Survivor. "We are developing partnerships everywhere," Short said.

In addition to three in-game spots for the upcoming Super Bowl, AOL gets first-half teaser announcements, a mention in a pre-game feature about the halftime show, and fourth-quarter mentions by the announcers aimed at driving viewers again to the AOL service to see all the game's commercials. (AT&T Wireless was the halftime sponsor of the 2003 Super Bowl; the three previous halftime shows were sponsored by E*Trade.)

Since the halftime deal is done through the NFL, CBS shares revenue for two spots with the league but will keep all revenue from the third. With the AOL deal done, CBS has now sold about 80 percent of its 62 in-game Super Bowl spots, according to John Bogusz, head of the network's sports sales. Bogusz said CBS has also sold about 70 percent of the pre-game commercial inventory at prices ranging from $200,000 to $1.4 million, including all presenting sponsorships of segments leading up to the game. Bogusz would not confirm advertisers, but Ford previously announced it is sponsoring the segment from 6 p.m. to 6:20 p.m. EST, right before kickoff.

Anheuser-Bush, whose in-house unit handles the $540 million advertiser's media buys, is expected to have six to eight in-game spots. Omnicom media network OMD has also completed its Super Bowl deal with CBS. It is expected that OMD clients Pepsi, FedEx, Visa, M&M/Mars, MGM and Universal will have spots in the game. Other past Super Bowl advertisers expected to be on hand include Verizon Wireless, Subway, General Motors, Volkswagen, Warner Brothers, Levi Strauss, Charles Schwab, McDonald's, HotJobs and Monster.