It was standing room only by the time a session on product placement and sponsored programming got underway at the Banff World Television Festival earlier this month.Moderator Sunny Boot - president and CEO of Zenith Optimedia Canada when not on stage - offered up a countervailing position to much of the chatter at the conference about television's looming demise."It's not really TV viewing that's in danger, it's the 30-second commercial," she said, citing personal video recorders and the ascendancy of Internet and mobile advertising as two factors diminishing the efficacy of conventional ad spots. Consequently, there's renewed interest in incorporating products in programs as a means to simultaneously fund content and keep brands in front of viewers.And, as head of one of the biggest media buying firms catering to Canadian advertisers, Boot is at the vanguard of the trend. "There's not a show that we do now with a network where we don't have a very serious discussion about product placement," she said. In fact, Zenith Optimedia now has a director of product integrity on staff to evaluate such opportunities.But product placement isn't a panacea for advertisers. Indeed, most agreed that product placement is useless if it's done too blatantly and diminishes the integrity of the programming. That's forced some producers to get creative in the way they meld rewarding sponsorships with compelling content.For the 2000-2001 Stars On Ice figure skating tour, Toronto's Insight Production Company Ltd. teamed up with the tour's sponsor, US big-box retailer Target Corp., to subtly weave placement of Target's distinctive red-and-white logo into crowd shots. As cameras cut away from the action to show the fans in the stands, Target logos could be made out on clothing and footwear.With coverage of the tour televised on NBC and A&E south of the border, one episode alone in December 2001 garnered an audience of roughly 7.3 million - considerable reach for an advertiser, considering there was virtually no way for viewers to avoid seeing the Target-branded products.The understated branding also served to tone down the commercialism of the televised event, a fact that delighted its producer. "A triple axel and beautiful lighting against a logo backdrop flies against the artistic vision we're trying to achieve," said Insight president, CEO and executive producer John Brunton, explaining why a more discreet approach to brand placement was preferred over traditional rinkside billboards.Insight has similar success with subsequent productions, including Canadian Idol, Deal or No Deal Canada and Project Runway Canada, although in many cases the promotion of sponsors' wares has become more aggressive. Such instances led Michael Jackson, president of programming at New York's IAC InterActiveCorp, a diversified media company whose holdings include Ask.com, Expedia and Ticketmaster, to observe that, in a sense "advertising is going back to where it was in the ‘50s," with paid pitchmen and use of products on-air.The difference today, however, is that audiences are more cynical and independent, which makes it challenging to sell to them without insulting them. "The funders have got to learn to live in an environment where there's less control," he said, because "intelligent users like less control, and intelligent users are intelligent consumers."As beneficial as the trend might seem for all parties concerned - advertisers, networks and producers - there are obstacles. "The sales department, let's be honest, get their year-end bonuses based on how many 30-second spots they sell - they hate this stuff," said David Lyle, COO and GM of Fox Reality, an all-reality-television channel from Fox Entertainment Group Inc."If the thing is too sponsored before you bring it to the network, the sales department gets the hump," he said, using an Anglicism for taking offense. As well, ad agencies can be "a wonderfully creative adversary" - and a force to be reckoned with - if you bypass them and go straight to the advertiser when putting together a product placement deal as part of a production's business plan.Producers - traditionally the piece of the value chain with the thinnest margins - can also be susceptible to pricing pressure and low-balling for their part in a product placement deal. Lyle noted that "producers would have to fight hard" to get half of the money generated by such arrangements: the more usual share, he said, was 20%.Edward Sabin, group president and COO at London-and-LA-based production house Alchemy Television Group, advocated for producers getting a bigger piece of the proceeds from product placement and sponsorships. "I've got to believe that what the producer is delivering to you is more valuable than that 30-second spot," he told the broadcasters in the room.Despite the competition from other platforms and countermeasures employed against commercials, most on the panel seemed to agree that television will retain its crown as the king of media for some time yet. But as other platforms will become increasingly important to advertisers, those in the TV world shouldn't take anything for granted."In the past, the Internet has been the last 300 metres of your 10-kilometre race," said Sabrina Geremia, head of business development at Google Canada's entertainment and media division. However, as the Web grows in importance, both as a vehicle for delivering advertising and a tool for gauging ad effectiveness in other media, that's rapidly changing."The last thing I would want to do in the future is spend a lot of money to get all the broadcast rights and the Internet rights, then lose the mobile rights to my competitor," Boot agreed.