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Is Saturday Night Live leasing its sketches to advertisers?

Last Updated: Tuesday, February 3, 2009 | 10:03 AM ET

Was MacGruber a Saturday Night Live sketch or Pepsi commercial? If you were watching the show on the weekend, it was hard to tell.

On Saturday night's SNL, the recurring bit starring cast member Will Forte aired three times during the show, each time with comical over-the-top promotion for Pepsi.

Then on Sunday night, one of the same MacGruber sketches — in which Forte plays a parody of the '80s action series MacGyver — aired during NBC's broadcast of the Super Bowl as a commercial.

As it turns out, all were paid commercials by Pepsi, made in collaboration with Saturday Night Live. Though they appeared to be sketches on SNL, they ran during allotted commercial breaks.

NBC Entertainment co-chairman Ben Silverman said Pepsi paid full freight for the spots — which sold for about $3 million US per 30-second spot during the Super Bowl.

"They really made it very funny and obvious, so I don't think there was any confusion," said Silverman. "Everything is ongoing experimentation, but the reality is we need to evolve and do more and more things."

Added Silverman: "It's not just an ad for Pepsi, it's an ad for Saturday Night Live."

Branding expert Peter Arnell was in charge of PepsiCo's Super Bowl campaign, which also included a 3-D commercial for its SoBe Life Water.

"The creative space is SNL's and they were commercials we would have bought, so the economics were as normal as it ever was," said Arnell. "It's the un-advertising advertising."

The first MacGruber sketch/commercial that ran during SNL came amid other commercials — after a movie trailer for The Pink Panther 2, which being promoted by last weekend's host, Steve Martin.

PepsiCo American Beverages chief Massimo d'Amore, who watched the Pittsburgh-Arizona Super Bowl from a luxury box with NBC executives and SNL producer Lorne Michaels, declined to say how much the company paid the network for the spots. An estimated 95.4 million people watched the game, making it second only to last year's game as the most popular ever, according to Nielsen Media Research.

"We have been working together all along in a true partnership," said d'Amore. "This is definitely not a one-off. It's a very determined step to connect with the consumers of today in a new contemporary way."

The ads include all the characteristics that the sketch series normally does: its cheesy opening theme song, a frightened sidekick (played by fellow cast member Kristen Wiig) and MacGruber's inevitable distraction (in this case, a Pepsi). The real MacGyver — Richard Dean Anderson — also made a cameo.

That a marquee SNL sketch would be sold to a marketer might rub some loyal viewers the wrong way.

Silverman says the viewer only wins, since the Pepsi sketches replaced regular commercials. (He also noted that SNL talent was paid for the work outside of their normal salaries.)

"It wasn't inside the show," said Silverman. "Lorne really protected the show. I think the fans of Saturday Night Live got to see a MacGruber that they wouldn't have otherwise seen."

Michaels wasn't available to comment Monday.

"What we're doing is selling entertainment vehicles and marketing platforms," said Silverman, who has looked for other revenue streams for NBC as network TV ratings have slid. "This is where programming is going."

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