"We interrupt this commercial for a program from our sponsor."
Well, it's never been quite that bad. But there is a goodly amount of sponsor-supplied programming on basic-cable networks these days, with most of it geared to outdoor-sports aficionados. And discussions are under way that could mean an uptick in advertiser-supplied programming that targets families and women.
Fox Family Channel and Odyssey Network have stepped up their efforts to score in the family-appeal sector. Both programmers recently pitched the Family Friendly Programming Forum, an offshoot of the Association of National Advertisers Inc., in hopes that its 42 advertiser-members might produce or co-produce original series, movies or specials for them. The advertisers are trying to underwrite the development of "family-friendly" primetime shows that aren't peppered with sex and violence.
On cable, sponsor-supplied programming has had its ups and downs. The whole concept of advertiser-produced shows on cable got a black eye four years ago when CNBC and The History Channel took a drubbing in the press for allegedly breaching the so-called wall between church and state by producing shows whose sponsors allegedly were given veto power over content.
Despite that controversy, advertisers today are still drawn to supplying programming to TV outlets, both cable and broadcast, with good reason: the sponsor's ability to control the program environment rather than just buying spots on it. As one ad agency buyer put it, it's a way to reduce "zapping" and "grazing."
Today, even on cable, sponsor-supplied programming is not as prominent as in the so-called "Golden Age" of the broadcast networks. Back then, marketers like General Electric Co., Kraft Foods, Procter & Gamble Co. and Colgate-Palmolive Co., and ad agencies like BBDO, Foote, Cone & Belding, J. Walter Thompson Co. and Young & Rubicam were involved in producing shows for the Big Three.
Decades later, that concept moved into the barter-syndication realm via advertisers like Colgate and onto network cable, where Bristol-Myers — now Bristol-Myers Squibb — supplied the Alive & Well
series to USA Network in the 1970s.
Today advertisers, such as P&G, still supply some programming to broadcast. There's CBS daytime, where the P&G soaps As the World Turns
and Guiding Light
continue to run, and primetime, via Dawson's Creek
and the syndicated Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, in which P&G has a partnership role with Paramount Television. Elsewhere in primetime, new Hallmark Hall of Fame
specials premiere periodically on CBS and "classics" from that package are rerun weekly on Odyssey.
Although such programs are comparatively few and far between in broadcast today, due to soaring production costs and ad rates, the National Association of Television Program Executives convention put this topic on its agenda last January, in a panel of called "When the Advertiser Turns Producer."
WE ARE FAMILY
P&G and Hallmark Cards, of course, are high on Fox Family's and Odyssey's hit lists when it comes to targeting prospective clients.
Last December, Fox Family sent out letters to the Family Friendly Programming Forum's members in hopes of persuading some to produce or co-produce original series, movies or specials there. Specifically, the missives from both Fox Family CEO Haim Saban and president Maureen Smith urged those marketers to "expand our [current] relationship" to partner with the network "in program development and production ventures."
Or, failing that, they suggested participating in various marketing and promotional tie-in opportunities.
Smith said late last March that advertiser members of the Forum have told her that their initial emphasis is on increasing such product on the major TV networks since Fox Family already is programmed that way. Fox Family Worldwide executive vice president of ad sales Barbara Bekkedahl emphasized that the Forum has been "very supportive of us" since most its members already advertise on the channel.
The Forum did give Fox Family several scripts generated by its script-development Fund but "they were too WB-like," Smith said. "They just didn't fit [Fox Family]."
Actually, the network's predecessor Family Channel also ran ad-supplied fare at times. In 1996, for example, its schedule included Chrysler Corp.-sponsored Jeep Presents Ultimate Adventures, specials that were later re-titled as Jeep American Adventures.
Soon after Fox Family's push, Odyssey set out on its own pursuit of the Forum members' support. As part of its strategy, executive vice president of ad sales Bill Abbott said the network has hired Andrea Kolb as director of strategic partnerships/ad sales. He said of the former ReplayTV sales official, "One of her main objectives will be to contact all the members of the Forum, both by letter and [in-person] visits."
Odyssey already repeats "classic" Hallmark Hall of Fame
dramas as a Wednesday night movie package entitled Hallmark Hall of Fame Collection
, sponsored in part by the greeting-card giant, as Abbott noted.
That's not surprising since Odyssey – to be renamed the Hallmark Channel in August – has been billed as "A Henson & Hallmark Entertainment Network" (for its partners, The Jim Henson Co. and Hallmark Entertainment).
Unlike the first-run specials on CBS, Odyssey's Hall of Famers
are not fully sold to Hallmark, which means other accounts now can be identified with that high-quality franchise, he pointed out.
Its programming, from the well-known Hallmark
package to the recent repeat of Roots, one of the most popular miniseries in TV history, has not been given off-channel marketing support but Chris Moseley, executive vice president of worldwide marketing at Odyssey parent Crown Media Holdings Inc., promised that will change.
It's too soon to say whether Odyssey will pursue these Forum ad partnerships for movies, specials or series in any particular order of importance, Abbott said. Odyssey already has six original movies and five series in the production pipeline, he added.
According to Andrea Alstrup, J&J vice president of advertising sales, fifteen of the Forum's members presently contribute to its script-development fund. Including Johnson & Johnson, P&G, AT&T Corp. and General Motors Corp.
NBC, is the latest of the Big Three TV networks to join, Alstrup said last March at the ANA's Television Forum in New York.
The WB was the Forum's first script-development network partner, since August 1999, with CBS and ABC coming on board last fall. To date, the only script that's gone to on-air series is The WB's Gilmore Girls.
The WB currently is considering nine Forum-generated scripts for the new season, Alstrup said, with ABC mulling "at least one." She has not yet heard from CBS.
Neither Alstrup nor P&G global marketing officer Robert Wehling, who co-chairs the family-friendly coalition with Alstrup, mentioned the efforts by Fox Family and Odyssey to get involved in the Forum. But Wehling did observe, "We decided early on to focus…[on] the early evening hours on the major broadcast networks." The group might broaden its focus later, he added.
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
ESPN and the Outdoor Channel seem to be the most enamored of the sponsor-supplied programming approach right now.
At ESPN, director of brand management Gary Morgenstern said that most of its programs that are sponsor-supplied or "pre-sponsored" – meaning that they are brought to the network presold to advertisers – tend to be in the outdoor and fishing genres.
Most of them run in Saturday/Sunday morning daypart or weekday early-morning and early-evening time periods.
Rod-and-reel as well as boating sponsors are categories where ESPN previously did not have as many contacts as the producers did, he explained.
Examples include JM Associates and Jimmy Houston Outdoor Television, he said. The former pre-sells clients on ESPN's The Fishin' Hole
and Bass Profiles, sponsored by Bass Pro Shops – hosted by JM principal Jerry McKinnis.
ESPN recently announced its acquisition of B.A.S.S. Inc., the largest fishing organization in the world that runs or sanctions over 25,000 fishing tournaments yearly and publishes several fishing magazines. But ESPN officials said that the only series it's involved in is the Bassmasters Tournament Trail. That began last January on ESPN2 after having long run on TNN: The Nashville Network; that move was announced last July, thus predating the acquisition.
Houston produces, hosts and sells Jimmy's Outdoors
(on ESPN) and Jimmy's Outdoor World
(on ESPN2 since 1995).
Both producers have longtime ties to ESPN, with McKinnis'Fishin' Hole
on the network since 1979, longer than any ESPN series except SportsCenter, Morgenstern said, while Houston's Jimmy's Outdoors
has been running since 1980.
Winnercomm is another production house, that produces and sells clients on Cabela's Sportsman's Quest
(sponsored for 52 weeks by Cabela, a major outdoor-equipment cataloguer), as well as on Under Wild Skies.
Another "perfect-fit" advertiser category has been sport-utility-vehicle makers. Recent shows like Subaru American Outback
and Nissan's Pathfinders: Exotic Journeys, a series designed to promote Nissan's Pathfinder SUV, have run their course, while the ten-year-old Suzuki Great Outdoors
has become Wal-Mart's Great Outdoors; this series is produced by Seals Communications, which also books the sponsors, Morgenstern said.
Another automotive entry is Ford's Destination Outdoors, with the presenting sponsorship sold to Ford Motor Co. by Barrett Productions, he added.
Most of these shows get one-year commitments to see how they will perform in the ratings, he explained. When they come in with a pre-sold entitled sponsor, ESPN gives the client category exclusivity, he noted.
Presenting sponsors must buy the majority of the commercial time within the program, he explained, while accounts in bartered programs must buy additional inventory elsewhere on the schedule.
The male-oriented, outdoor-themed shows in particular also afford product-placement opportunities for fishing gear and the like, Morgenstern noted.
Outdoor Channel vice president of business development Wade Sherman said, "We probably have six or seven shows that are sponsor-supplied."
Some previously were on TNN: The National Network – formerly The Nashville Network and now in the midst of a format makeover.
Outdoor's current examples, a spokesman said, are Hunting with Penn's Woods
(a game-call marketer), Hunting the Country(from camouflage designer Mossy Oak) and Primos' Truth About Hunting
(from Primos Hunting Calls). Among other similar shows on its air are: Knight & Hale'sUltimate Hunting
(from the Knight & Hale game-call maker), Picasso's Sport Fishing of the World
(from Picasso Outdoors cataloguer) and Real Tree Outdoors
(from Realtree Outdoor Products).
TNN, besides various outdoorsy shows, ran Road Ready
a few years ago as a series supplied by The Pep Boys auto-parts supplier geared for auto enthusiasts. A spokeswoman was reluctant to comment, given its revamp plans.
WHAT NEXT, WOMEN?
Women have long been targeted by sponsor-supplied product – and more may be on the way.
At Lifetime Television, executive vice president of ad sales Lynn Picard said P&G brought in a long-running daytime series, What Every Baby Knows. P&G split the production costs and inventory 50/50 with Lifetime until that show "just ran its course a couple of years ago."
In 1997, the Bristol-Myers Clairol division brought Lifetime a special tied into a Ladies' Home Journal
special issue saluting Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. That same year, Lifetime's executive vice president of entertainment Dawn Tarnofsky-Ostroff told an International Radio & Television Society audience that she was open to more such sponsor-supplied fare.
"There definitely seems to be a resurgence of interest in advertisers willing to develop content" at Lifetime and elsewhere, Picard said recently in an interview. That interest has been sparked largely by their concern about TiVo Inc. and the personal-video-recorder's impact on the traditional 30-second spot, she observed.
"There are no deals but we've been in discussion about a variety of ways [a client could be involved], from presenting sponsorships like 'Texaco [Star] Theatre' to co-productions in which a brand's essence could be woven into the content."
As a hypothetical example of the latter, she said a jewelry company might be involved, and a woman on the show might shop for a diamond ring "without being really blatant" about the connection.
Lifetime also is eyeing virtual product placements via Princeton Video Image Inc., which has done virtual ads for sports sponsors on ESPN and others. "Again, that has to make sense," she said. "We don't want to cross the line."
Product placements, which already have popped up on CBS's high-rated Survivor
series, may be among the tactics that will replace what TBWA Chiat/Day president Bob Kuperman called "interruptive advertising," meaning the conventional 30-second spot, at the NATPE session.
Speaking of product placements, that trend seems well underway on the major TV networks. Most notably, CBS'Survivor: The Australian Outback
this season inserted plugs for Doritos, Bud Light, Pontiac Aztek and more as "reward challenge" prizes and ABC's Who Wants to Be a Millionaire
features the AT&T Corp.-sponsored phone-a-friend "lifeline." Up next: ABC's The Runner
in midseason will incorporate a specific soft drink, cell phone and so on into this reality series' storyline, which involves a runner having to accomplish certain "missions" on a cross-country trek – all without being caught by eagle-eyed viewers.
There might well have been more sponsor-produced shows were it not for two setbacks in 1996, one being the controversy involving The History Channel and CNBC. History's The Spirit of Enterprise, a series of corporate profiles that was to involve sponsors like AT&T, American Express Co., Anheuser-Busch Inc. and DuPont was scrapped.
But CNBC's Scan, a series on technology innovations, kept going – after the network changed its mind about giving sponsor IBM Corp. similar veto power.
The second setback was the folding of Television Production Partners Inc., a programming consortium headed by Jack Myers, now CEO of Myers Reports Inc. That venture involved many of the same clients that now belong to the more focused Forum initiative – among them, AT&T, Coca-Cola Co., GM, McDonald's Corp., Clorox Co. and Reebok. One of TPP's projects, Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream
ran on TBS Superstation primetime earlier that year.
Myers said that the TPP venture had been "built on the advertiser-as-program-producer as opposed to developer." It also called for the advertisers retaining interest on the backend, becoming deficit underwriters of programming for long-term advantage" rather than the more typical short-term advantage.
All told, six TPP programs aired, five on ABC and the Hank Aaron special on TBS.
There also was $40 million worth of program contracts in the works at the time the venture shuttered, Myers said, including a sports series for ESPN and several other shows for broadcast.
"The focus was on whether a different economic model could be developed," he added. There was, the partners concluded, "but the opposition from the agencies and networks was too significant to overcome." Their opposition centered on the issue of control, he noted. There also were personal issues. Myers said he was reluctant to forsake his other business interests to focus on TPP full-time and also would not relocate to Hollywood.
In addition, Discovery Networks U.S. earlier cooled down its initial enthusiasm for sponsor-supplied product.
Most notably, Chrysler Corp., now DaimlerChrysler, and ad agency Bozell Inc. had worked with Discovery Channel on developing such primetime specials as Rediscovering America
and The Space Shuttle
from 1992 to 1995. At that point, the network ended its "program partnerships" for primetime. More recently, both Discovery and The Learning Channel did the same in the daytime daypart.
But not before Discovery ran HouseSmart, a daytime home-improvement series starring home-renovator personality Lynette Jennings, in partnership with The Home Depot; TLC carried Deft Corp.'s Furniture to Go, a how-to series; and both networks carried a financial-advice series entitled Money, supplied by the American Bankers Association.
TLC's programming, like Discovery's, now is "completely TLC-driven, -acquired or -owned," a spokeswoman said. "No sponsors supply the programming."
Similarly, Home & Garden Television "makes it a point not to do that [take sponsor-supplied product]," according to network spokeswoman Carol Hicks.