Like Marty McFly in the Back to the Future films, cable-network and ad-community executives have returned to the past — in their case, in hopes of improving their fortunes.
Executives at several programming network have revisited both the concept of the presenting sponsor and, to a lesser degree, the advertiser-supplied programming strategies so prevalent on the Big Three networks during the 1950s and 1960s, and applied them to today's basic-cable business.
The reason: Advertisers are seeking ways to stand out from a sea of commercial clutter and fragmented ratings.
Turner Network Television's presenting-sponsor deal with Johnson & Johnson, inked last summer, has sparked interest in similar projects among other clients, said Linda Yaccarino, senior vice president and general sales manager at TBS Superstation, TNT's sister network.
Advertisers aren't just drawn by the ratings and reach of Turner Broadcasting System Inc.'s networks, she said. They also see benefits from the hefty marketing and promotion of those channels, as well as the assets of Turner parent AOL Time Warner Inc.
More clients are exploring becoming program partners or title sponsors because "the pressure is on them to get their message out despite fragmented ratings and pods cluttered with a lot of other commercials," said Yaccarino.
Although TNT's pact for "Johnson & Johnson Spotlight Presentations" initially covered four original movies in 2002 and 2003 — and involved J&J at the script stage — Yaccarino said the agreement has since been expanded to a multiyear deal that extends beyond the quartet of films.
The first two "J&J Presents" titles were Door to Door, a William H. Macy vehicle that appeared last July, and Miss Lettie and Me, due Dec. 8 as a holiday movie starring Mary Tyler Moore and Burt Reynolds.
Honus & Me,
about a boy who travels back in time to meet baseball legend Honus Wagner, could be next, airing anytime during the 2003 baseball season.
Hallmark Channel executive vice president of ad sales Bill Abbott said Sears, Roebuck & Co. has signed on as the presenting sponsor of the channel's Hallmark Hall of Fame Collection, which will air Wednesdays in primetime, for 40 weeks of the year.
In taking that franchise position in the drama classics, the retail giant knows that Wednesday evening is key to boosting weekend traffic into its stores.
As for Hallmark Cards — whose "Hall of Fame" franchise is one of the longest-running sponsor-supplied franchises on network TV — Abbott said "it's treated like any other advertiser" when it buys into the cable package. "They don't have exclusivity."
But the greeting-card giant obviously benefits from the residual effects of having its name in the program title.
Sponsorship of primetime series, though quite common on the three major TV networks back in the 1950s and 1960s, is even more unusual nowadays. But Hallmark has one such series, Adoption.
Wendy's International, whose first-season deal reportedly was for $1 million, has re-upped for a second season of the reality series, which will continue to involve the Dave Thomas Foundation. Thomas, the late founder of Wendy's, was adopted.
Industry sources said Hallmark Channel is now talking with Clorox Co. about sponsoring and perhaps even co-producing an original movie, but Abbott declined comment.
Fact and fiction
Universal Television Group president of ad sales Jeff Lucas, who oversees USA Network, Sci Fi Channel and Trio, said that USA — which a few years ago ran the Moby Dick
miniseries under the "AT&T Presents" banner — is now looking for more such arrangements — and for sponsor-supplied product.
USA's miniseries Helen of Troy
and Sci Fi's mini Children of Dune
will both have major sponsors attached when they air this spring, he said.
Sci Fi's Taken, the lavish Steven Spielberg miniseries set to run on 10 December weeknights, will feature General Motors Corp. in a highly visible — and costly — presenting-sponsor role.
Joe Abruzzese, the former CBS sales honcho who recently joined Discovery Networks U.S. as president of ad sales, said an increase in presenting sponsorships is one of his goals as a way to juice up ad rates.
"I'm not sure about sponsor-supplied, but we're going to do a lot more sponsored programming," he said.
General Motors is sponsoring James Cameron's Expedition: Bismarck
Dec. 8, the first special in Discovery Channel's quarterly "Quest" programming initiative. The show was sold earlier this year by Discovery executive vice president Bill McGowan.
In another move straight out of Back to the Future, Mutual of Omaha has secured the title sponsorship to sister network Animal Planet's Wild Kingdom. Vice president of programming Bill Graff, who finalized the Mutual arrangement, is now seeking out more such deals.
"Clients and agencies are becoming more at ease" with doing sponsorship deals, said Rainbow Advertising Sales Corp., president of national network sales Arlene Manos.
Such opportunities are increasingly attractive to marketers, she said, because "they give more visibility than the 30-second spot and the [sponsor's] message is heightened."
For instance, Rainbow Media Group's Muchmusic USA in October sold Levi's and Sony PlayStation 2 as presenting sponsors for its Voodoo Festival, a Dec. 5 concert special. Those accounts received on-site signage and product-sampling opportunities, she noted.
Independent Film Channel, which doesn't carry ads, will feature presenting sponsorships from Volkswagen and Sony Corp. for Indie Rocks,
which features music from independent films, and Ten Titans, which recognizes up-and-coming filmmakers, said Manos. Both are due in fourth-quarter 2003.
RASCO is talking with prospects about sponsoring She House, a third-quarter WE: Women's Entertainment series in which viewers vote on aspects of building a house in Shelter Island, N.Y., such as choosing the type of siding builders will use, Manos said.
Like TNT, WE has had "a very successful relationship" with J&J, said Manos, albeit a different kind. The client enjoyed an exclusive-sponsorship arrangement for 18 months, leading up to WE proffering a full commercial load this fall.
WE has talked with J&J about various opportunities but when asked if the two parties are discussing a TNT-style movie-development deal, Manos said, "We're not that far yet."
Elsewhere on the distaff-programming scene, a spokeswoman said that Lifetime Television recently renewed Procter & Gamble and Wal-Mart Stores as sponsors of Speaking of Women's Health, its Saturday-morning talk show, and the network's only regular series with a presenting sponsorship.
And Scripps Networks' Home & Garden Television has booked Eastman Kodak Co. as the presenting sponsor for its live Tournament of Roses Parade coverage on Jan. 1, an event that will have no commercial interruptions, according to a Scripps spokesman.
HGTV's upcoming Dream House
special, Food Network's recent Emeril Salutes
and DIY's Ultimate Workshop
also have inked presenting sponsorship deals, he added.
...and sports fans
ESPN/ABC Sports president of customer marketing and sales Ed Erhardt said this trend is "not new to sports." ESPN has televised sponsor-supplied fare in the fishing and outdoors genre virtually from its launch.
The network is now interested in carrying that concept over to original movies and even series, said Erhardt.
"We're open to working with advertisers and their agencies, such as Magna Global USA, [which negotiated the TNT deal] and others, about bringing high-quality programming to our air, as movies or scripted dramas," he said.
ESPN continues to run outdoors shows during its Saturday-morning and primetime blocks on ESPN and ESPN2, respectively. For the handful of clients involved, the strategy "works very well."
"We do a fair amount of sponsor-supplied programming as time buys," Erhardt said, dismissing speculation that the recent appointment of Matt Genova as vice president of ad sales and sponsorship for ESPN Outdoors signified a greater emphasis on such sponsor-supplied product.
Lately, ESPN has started to "produce more outdoors programming ourselves," Erhardt said.