On the surface, it's just a gussied-up, televised lottery that stars a trained chimp picking the winning number.
But the WB network's live show Pepsi Play for a Billion also may be the tip of a large trend redefining the way TV advertisers fund network programming. Even if Sunday night's two-hour event tanks as badly as some gurus expect.
"In a way, it's the future and back to the future at the same time," said Dave DeCecco, a spokesman for Pepsi-Cola North America. "If we can present our brand in a way that's unique, that's the goal. This could just be the beginning of brand integration in television."
Optimistic as DeCecco's comments seem, there's little doubt Pepsi has jumped in the deep end with its sponsorship of the one-shot game show and six episodes of the recently concluded Pepsi Smash summer music series on the WB.
Harking back to the early days of TV when sponsors always stuck their names on shows - anyone remember Texaco Star Theater, Kraft Music Hall and the Philco Television Playhouse? - Pepsi's latest effort seems a pointed response to competitor Coca-Cola's awkward product placement in the Fox-TV hit American Idol. It also reflects the scrambling by broadcasters and advertisers to cope with the commercial-skipping culture enabled by VCRs and digital video recorders such as TiVo.
Pepsi approached the WB with the uniquely structured contest, asking programmers there to figure out how they could give away a billion dollars on live television (or, at least appear to give it away).
"So many times, there's a contest with a big prize, and you never find out who wins," said Pepsi's DeCecco, noting the company spent $15-million on Play for a Billion. "We wanted to do something huge this summer - something no one has done before."
The alliance of advertiser and broadcaster makes sense: both the WB and Pepsi are focused on "tweens," teens and young adults. For the WB, they are a ripe market prized by advertisers that the larger Big Four networks are too broad to target. For Pepsi, they are a wide swath of consumers just forming product preferences that will last throughout their hyper-consumptive lives.
So the two companies cooked up a what may be one of the more complex games ever on television.
It works like this: One-thousand hopefuls have been flown to Orlando for a two-day, expense-paid vacation. Sunday, each person will pick a number between 0 and 1-million. Then, they'll turn to Kendall.
Kendall, a 41/2-year-old chimp from Orlando, will select six digits from a bag and arrange them into the winning number (assuming he doesn't mistake them for food or toys. Producers swear they beat the bushes for a simian who wouldn't be predisposed toward picking certain numbers over others.) The 10 people whose numbers fall closest to the chimp's number will be pulled from the crowd as finalists.
Those finalists will face successive rounds in which they are offered a sum of money to quit the contest; if no one accepts the sum, the person with the number furthest from Kendall's number is eliminated and a larger sum will be offered in the next round. (If someone accepts the money, their number will be given to the last person standing at the contest's end).
Eventually, the last person left receives $1-million. If the winner's number matches the number picked by Kendall - a 1-in-1,000 chance, according to the WB - he or she will receive $1-billion.
"By the way, if this works out, during the next election year, the Bush administration is going to get together with Pepsi and give away a small Arab country," said comic Drew Carey, who will host the show with WB stars Jamie Kennedy and Holly Robinson Peete.
(The company that has insured the grand prize and would actually pay the money if won is a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway - owned by superstar investor Warren Buffett, who happens to sit on Coca-Cola's board of directors).
The idea, said one of the show's producers, is to build suspense while playing a game that literally anyone can participate in.
"What would you do if you were one of six players left ... or someone won a billion dollars with the number you left behind? That's drama ... That's going to be interesting to watch," said executive producer Matti Leshem, noting the show also features competitions for a trip around the world and a new car.
Or it could all add up to a boring game requiring no intellectual or physical skill to win, said one game show expert.
"Most people are highly skeptical that anyone would actually win a billion," said Steve Beverly, a broadcasting professor and webmaster of the site TVgameshows.net.
DeCecco said there's a reason why the big contest doesn't feature a test of intelligence or skill. "We didn't want to put our consumers in any compromising positions," he said. "We didn't want them to eat bugs. We wanted everyone to have an equal shot at the money."
TV industry types are skeptical for many reasons: The show falls on a Sunday, which is one of the WB's lowest-rated nights. It's a two-hour show centered on the final 30-minute drive to the $1-billion. And there's a high probability no one will win the grand prize.
"Why take this big blockbuster special and bury it on a Sunday before the season begins? It's got "flop' written all over it," said Marc Berman, a columnist for Mediaweek magazine. "Wouldn't it be ironic if someone won a $1-billion and there were no viewers?"
Another twist comes in the payment: Winners can receive a $250-million lump sum payment, or $1-billion over 40 years in escalating increments. Which means Pepsi isn't really giving away $1-billion in 2003 dollars. It's giving away $1-billion in dollars as they will likely be valued in 2043, a much lower figure.
Beverly, who teaches courses on TV advertising at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., said today's advertisers are more likely to consider product placement ("Coca-Cola Moments" inside American Idol, a competition featuring a Pontiac as a grand prize on Survivor) than the financial and content commitment that comes with placing the company's name on a show.
"In most cases, you may have title sponsorship, but nobody gets all the commercial time," the professor said.
Still, Pepsi's DeCecco insists there are rewards beyond ratings. The 1,000 initial contestants were selected from among 20-million consumers who bought Pepsi products in registering for the game.
The WB has a simpler motivation: It's getting a program for little or no cost.
"Young people view commercials in a different way than older generations ... . They're not watching them," said Leshem. "This is something you're going to see a lot more of as the power of the 30-second commercial diminishes."