'The Office' makes pitch to viewers: Watch and buy

Phil Rosenthal
Chicago Tribune

The Office

Dunder-Mifflin's Michael Scott is such a phenomenally dreadful regional manager that it takes seeing him in sales mode to understand how he could remain on the payroll.

His boss, like the modest but loyal audience of NBC's "The Office," couldn't have been more stunned when the clod played by Second City alum Steve Carell closed a seemingly impossible deal earlier this season. "I underestimated you," she told him.

"Yeah, well," he said, "maybe next time you will estimate me."

This Thursday's Christmas episode again has Michael making a pitch: He sings the praises of Sandals all-inclusive resort in Jamaica. Literally. "I've got two tickets to paradise. Pack your bags, we'll leave the day after tomorrow," he warbles.

The surprise getaway doesn't go over as planned with his girlfriend, but the tout of "Jamaica's largest freshwater pool" is apt to reach its intended target - the show's audience - even if there's the implied threat you might run into Michael down there.

"The Office," a reimagined version of a British hit, offers a preview of what the TV business will have to do as its viewership and ad market are fragmented by the Internet and the rest.

It's doing all it can to be more valuable than a show averaging 8.8 million viewers and finishing third in its time slot. Like Michael, it's survived because it knows how to sell.

"We hit beyond our weight," said executive producer Ben Silverman, a former agent at William Morris whose eye for translatable international fare has also led to the successful import of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" and "Ugly Betty." "You would almost believe `The Office' is a top five show."

It's not even in the top 40 in overall viewership. But more than simply embracing product placement, weaving brands into stories, it has availed itself of almost all digital opportunities.

There have been mini-episodes on the Internet, an "Office" game for mobile phones, DVDs and episode sales on Apple's iTunes site, which not only brings in cash but markets the show.

"And all those things go together," Silverman said. "You're kind of doing them to build momentum. It (also presents) economic opportunities that incentivize the network to keep supporting the show and financing it."

Carell and company draw less than half of what the most popular shows do. "Grey's Anatomy," currently the No. 1 show in prime time, attracts around 22.5 million viewers. Even within the put-upon genre of half-hour comedies, "The Office" fails to crack the top five in overall viewers.

But among the age 18-to-49 demographic, "The Office" is second only to top-rated "Two and a Half Men" among comedies. The last week both shows aired, CBS' "Men" had a 4.8 rating and 11 percent share of the crowd, while the Emmy-winning "Office" had a 4.4 rating and 11 percent share, despite spotting "Men" 6.5 million viewers overall.

"Interestingly, `The Office,' which NBC stuck with in spite of poor ratings during its first season, has become the network's strongest comedy of (Thursday) night," Brian Hughes of media buying firm Magna Global observed. "While by no means a breakout hit, it does prove that giving a program time to grow can pay off."

A study released by Nielsen Media Research last month found that placement raises an unknown brand's recognition among viewers to 38.9 percent, a bit less than the 46.6 percent a commercial achieves. Get both and the figure is 57.5 percent.

But the study found the percentage of viewers who had positive thoughts about those carefully placed brands was slightly lower. "The Office" clears this hurdle by turning its gifted script writers into copy writers, some more willingly than others.

"The business has changed and you have to do these things to survive," Silverman said.

When it works, it works. One "Office" drone a few weeks back delighted in shredding paper, a CD disc and, absent-mindedly, one of his credit cards. "This thing is so awesome! It will shred anything!" he exclaimed, the capper coming when he shredded lettuce, added dressing and dug in.

A co-worker asked where he got the salad. "Staples!" he said.

The Staples MailMate plug was one of that week's top placements, according to iTVX, a tracking outfit.

This week's episode is called "A Benihana Christmas." You can guess why.

"The younger audience appreciates intelligent marketing," Silverman said. "They're sold to all day long. They're on to the game. But the reality is it's all about the show ... It's got to be funny. Appeal on the most primal level, and then the audience will follow you."

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