The theory is that Friday Night Lights just hasn't grown a bigger audience because most people have never watched it. More than most shows, it does seem that I don't find people peripherally familiar with it; the people I talk to who have seen it absolutely love it, and everyone else says they have never watched. The show feels real in a way that few primetime shows have, and there's one element in particular that FNL does better than any other show on television: product placement and integration.
The Applebee's integration into FNL is the best use of product integration I've ever seen. The restaurant is a prominent part of the story at many points, as one of the key characters works as a waitress there and it's the de facto place to stop in town for a nicer meal, if players or their parents aren't going to the local burger shop or the "Alamo Freeze." Actually, the "Alamo Freeze" is a Dairy Queen, and you can easily tell that's the case, complete with partial shots of the Dairy Queen sign and Blizzards on the menu. My understanding is that it is even filmed at a Dairy Queen in Austin, Texas, but that they've chosen to make it a localized restaurant instead.
Applebee's is a different story. Many important plot points and character conversations have happened over a meal at the restaurant, complete with "Curbside to Go" flyers on the table, as one would have at any Applebee's. And I've seen few viewers complain about it, because the use of the brand only heightens the realistic feel of the show. For a moderately small town like Dillon, this is just the type of restaurant people would be excited about, a chain restaurant that somehow says Dillon is a bigger town than it should be. As Alan Sepinwall said in an early review of the show on his blog, "Hell, I didn't even mind the blatant product integration stuff with Applebee's ('This is a fantastic meal. Fantastic meal.'), since I completely believe that Applebee's would be a culinary destination in a town like this."
Applebee's stretches its participation on Friday Night Lights into other platforms as well, sponsoring a page for viewers to share their own game day meal traditions and superstitions on the NBC Web site. Even better, perhaps, is an Applebee's behind the scenes gallery which includes shots from filming at Applebee's.
For me, the Applebee's placement on FNL is a much more integrated version of what I wrote about last year with Chili's on various shows, including The O.C. and Veronica Mars. Then, I mentioned the Applebee's/FNL crossover, but I didn't realize its artistry at the time, as the show had just launched, and I had not yet tuned in. More integrated is much harder to pull off artistically, but I think this partnership was approached correctly from the beginning, where the use of product integration was designed in a way to increase the realism of the show.
Back in December 2005, I wrote about fan discussions on how soap operas could do something similar, in creating the branded world we live in without the product integration taking over the show. For me, Applebee's placement in FNL is the exemplar.