"Survivor" is considered a watershed in paid product placements, opening the floodgates to a projected $2.75 billion in spending this year on such shows as "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," WWE's "Monday Night Raw," "American Idol" and "Celebrity Apprentice." Before "Survivor," brands got promotional placements in exchange for use of a prop, such as a car, or as a bonus for buying commercial time.
Burnett is now trying to bring that formula to the Web through his investment in the Vimby digital production studio. The Van Nuys, Calif., venture launched in 2005 with a network of filmmakers around the country who create original, short-form videos for Vimby's website that now also may find a home on other sites including YouTube and Myspace. As part of Burnett's investment in 2010, Vimby began rubbing elbows with such major advertisers as Aflac, General Mills, Macy's, McDonald's, Pepsi and Puma - helping these brands create their own content for distribution on YouTube or on a company's Facebook page.
"Mark Burnett said, 'Guys, we need to build an arsenal, a bigger toolbox, working with General Mills, with Pepsi, doing stuff in a way that's consistent, authentic and involves great story-telling,' " Vimby founder and Chief Executive Dean Waters said of the digital studio's expanded focus.
Under Burnett's influence, Vimby's filmmakers have widened the lens, creating stories not only for the Web but also for TV, as was the case with an MTV special that followed five young women to New York, where they competed to become a Seventeen Magazine cover model. On other occasions, brands pay Vimby to create content that the advertiser can use to build an online community or cultivate greater affinity with its consumers. Macy's Million Dollar Makeover promotion drew 20,000 applicants from around the country, eight of whom were selected as finalists to participate in a reality-TV-styled competition that attracted 1 million new fans to the retailer's Facebook page.
Burnett isn't the first television producer whom brands have sought out to create high-quality, low-cost entertainment for the Web and beyond. Several other veterans from the traditional media world, including former top network executives such as ABC's Lloyd Braun, NBC's Ben Silverman and the WB's Jordan Levin and independent producers like Jak Severson, also are looking to capture audiences as they move to these digital platforms. Big brands are tagging along, in hopes that such proven players can find their footing online.