Digitally inserted ads pop up more in sports

By Michael McCarthy, USA TODAY

NEW YORK – Cash-hungry sports broadcasters are expanding use of controversial “virtual” ads.

Virtual ad for Ford was aired on Fox TV during an NFL pre-game show.

The digitally inserted ads, such as logos that appear painted on the field, don’t exist outside TV screens. TV viewers will be seeing more of them on major sports events such as the World Series.

“You’ll see more experimentation as the technology becomes more sophisticated,” predicts Mike Aresco, senior vice president of programming for CBS Sports.

Why? The cost of broadcast rights for sports events is going up faster than ad income. And the extra bucks can subsidize popular gimmicks such as virtual “first-down lines” in football telecasts.

Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, call the high-tech ads an “Orwellian” blurring of the line between ads and programming. Albert May, chairman of the journalism department at George Washington University, asks: “Where will it stop? Will they fill the empty seats with artificial people?”

But David Sitt, co-chief executive officer of PVI, the leading producer of such digital effects, says virtual ads enable advertisers to get inside the game – and “inside people’s minds.”

Virtual ads this fall:

* World Series. Fox Sports announced Thursday that starting Saturday, home viewers watching the Series between the San Francisco Giants and Anaheim Angels will see virtual ads behind home plate. The ads will pitch Major League Baseball sponsors such as Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi and MasterCard as well as Fox TV shows such as The Bernie Mac Show and Boston Public.

Fox’s goal is to have “virtual signs” that look like the real rotating ad signs behind home plate in many ballparks, says David Hill, chairman of Fox Sports. Fox is trying to avoid a repeat of last year’s World Series flop, when its first attempt at virtual home plate ads – for Fox shows such as Ally McBeal -was criticized as obviously fake and obnoxiously large.

* College football. CBS Sports and PVI are creating “branded first-down lines” for Southeastern Conference college football games this fall. Logos for Pontiac and DuPont have “appeared” on the gridiron so far.

* Testing.The NHL, NBA and NFL are all kicking the tires on virtual ads. The NHL tested virtual ads in local broadcasts during the pre-season, but has no plans yet for the regular season, says spokesman Jamey Horan. The NBA is “currently looking at it,” says spokesman Mike Bass. The NFL is inserting virtual ads into international, but not domestic, broadcasts of the Super Bowl.