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"The Runner" seems to fit the times. In the new ABC reality show, hidden cameras follow a "runner" (though the whole trip isn't made on foot) as he or she travels across America. While viewers try to track the runner down, he or she must accomplish certain "missions," going to a fast-food joint in a specific state, for example, and ordering a cheeseburger. Each week viewers can pick up clues about the runner's whereabouts on the prime-time show, or on the official "Runner" Web site. Catch the runner and win as much as $1 million. If the runner makes it across the country undetected in 28 days, he collects the money.

OK, it's not the "The Sopranos." But when "The Runner" debuts in the fall, it will be groundbreaking in its own way. In airing the new series, which was created by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon's TV production company, ABC is hoping to transform the economics of the TV business. In the process, the network is allowing advertisers to play an unprecedented role in shaping the content of the show--a plan that's likely to upset some media critics. Even some advertising executives worry that the show could put consumers off by featuring a barrage of brand logos.

Sure, movies have long tucked brand-name products into a scene--for fees that reach tens of thousands of dollars or more. Procter & Gamble owns a production company that churns out soap operas, including "As the World Turns" and "Guiding Light," to help hawk its brands like Tide and Joy. On CBS, "Survivor" cast members wear Reebok jerseys, and have sucked down Bud Light and used other branded goods, an honor that reportedly cost each company $12 million.

But with "The Runner," ABC is offering advertisers much more--a chance to help decide how the plot of the series will unfold, in some cases on an episode-by-episode or even scene-by-scene basis. The ABC sales force is already trying to line up companies willing to pay for the privilege of being the runner's mobile phone, laptop computer, credit card or burger joint. ABC is offering far more than just a beauty shot of a soft-drink can. In one mission, for instance, the runner may be instructed to go to a sponsor's clothing store (think the Gap) to buy a pair of size 32 khakis and orange socks--without being detected, of course. A different mission would call for use of a different sponsor's product and therefore a different plot line. "Your product becomes part of the show," says Mike Shaw, ABC's top ad-sales exec.

So far, ABC has landed one major sponsor: Pepsi will be "The Runner's" exclusive soft drink. (Neither Pepsi nor ABC will provide financial details.) Pepsi was intrigued by ABC's "open invitation" to actively help create the scenarios for product placements, says Rick Rock, the beverage company's VP of media and entertainment marketing. "We are going to work very closely with them to make this different and unusual," he says.

ABC is dangling another remarkable enticement before marketers. It is promising to promote "The Runner" 24/7, sprinkling newsy "runner updates" throughout its prime-time schedule and on shows like "Monday Night Football" and "Good Morning America." ABC also may allow advertisers to sponsor updates. And on the corner of the TV screen, visible virtually around the clock, may be a constant tally of "The Runner's" bounty.

But some advertising execs worry that ABC may overdo the concept. "It shouldn't be overcommercialized," warns John Lazarus, senior vice president of TN Media, which represents such clients as Bank of America and Compaq. "Viewers would end up not liking it." Not to worry, says ABC. An exec promises the "runner won't look like a race car" emblazoned with logos. So far, the concept hasn't drawn controversy. Even media watchdogs say that most viewers are savvy enough to realize the brands are paying for their starring roles. And with networks hungry for ad dollars, don't be surprised if for sale signs pop up increasingly on your favorite shows.

WHAT 'THE RUNNER' OFFERS SPONSORS