NEW YORK -- Look closely the next time you see a television program with no advertising on it. An advertising agency may still lurk behind it.
Next week, public broadcasting stations around the country will begin rebroadcasting "The Civil War," the acclaimed 11-hour documentary by Ken Burns that in its first go-round last September became the most-watched public television program of all time.
Critics exhausted their thesauruses praising Burns and the Public Broadcasting Service. Few took notice of a third party without which the series would not have been made: Ayer U.S.A., the advertising agency.
Seven years ago, Burns was introduced to Richard N. Prince, a senior vice president of Ayer in Detroit, who has served for years as a program scout for General Motors Corp. Prince, in turn, brought Burns and his project to the attention of General Motors, which was impressed enough with "The Civil War" to provide about $3 million to finance it.
But if the program was born of a marriage made on Madison Avenue, rest assured that altruism had little to do with it. Despite the lack of commercials on PBS, commerce is often the point.
"The more cluttered the airwaves get with commercials and the more fragmented the audience gets, the more difficult it becomes to get a message through to the consumer," said Marcella Rosen, Ayer's executive vice president and media director. "So if we can't get a good match between a television program and a client's needs, we create it."
From the beginning of broadcasting, advertising agencies created many programs on which their clients advertised. Jack Benny's Sunday evening radio show, to cite a famous example, was actually produced for years by an ad agency, Young & Rubicam, on behalf of General Foods' Jell-O dessert.
But as the historian Erik Barnouw noted in his 1978 book, "The Sponsor," the networks chafed at the ad agencies' control over program content and scheduling, especially after television supplanted radio. So, beginning in the early 1950s, the networks began producing their own programming and selling spots to various advertisers.
Sponsored programming, as advertiser-created shows are called, did not die: D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles still produces soap operas for the Procter & Gamble Co. But sponsored programs diminished in importance -- except at agencies like Ayer, which specializes in finding quality programs for its clients to produce.
The marketing theory behind sponsorships, particularly specials on the networks and PBS, is simple: They can bring companies to the attention of consumers who are otherwise hard to reach, especially men.
"The basic marketing purpose is obviously image enhancement, against a group of consumers who aren't normally exposed to a great deal of advertising -- higher-income, better-educated thought leaders and influence leaders," said Philip Guarascio, the executive director of GM's marketing and advertising programs.
Beneath the umbrella of quality programming are careful sponsorship choices.
General Motors wants to create a sense of well-being about America, so its "Mark of Excellence" presentations, on which Ayer has worked since 1983, focus on "events in the American experience," Guarascio said.
Last year, the agency and the company helped produce "Separate but Equal," a dramatization of the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling that desegregated schools, which ran on ABC.
American Telephone and Telegraph Co., on the other hand, wants to appeal to younger executives who buy telecommunications equipment for their companies and homes.
So the company, for which Ayer works, sponsors programs that "tend to feature younger men in heroic situations," said Aaron Cohen, the director of the agency's national broadcasting and programming department. Last year, AT&T sponsored "Last Flight Out," an NBC movie on the departure of Americans from Vietnam.
Most sponsorship arrangements are ad hoc. When a big television network is involved, a marketer or its ad agency can license a program that the network owns and pay a fee that covers both some production costs and advertising time on the program.
Sometimes, a marketer will develop the entire project itself and buy the network time to run it. While more expensive than simple licensing, this gives the sponsor an opportunity to recoup its costs by selling home-video or foreign rights.
General Motors paid $1 million toward the production of "The Civil War" -- more than a third of its production costs -- and some $2 million more to promote it to viewers and in schools, Burns said. In return, the company received credits in the program and the opportunity to call the show a "GM Mark of Excellence" production.
The series' strikingly high viewership -- an 8.8 average rating for five nights, or about 8.19 million viewers each night, compared with PBS ratings that normally hover around 2 points -- has led to further collaborations between GM and Burns.
The auto company is the sole corporate sponsor of his "Songs of the Civil War," which will be broadcast next month on PBS, and of two upcoming Burns documentaries on the history of radio and the history of baseball.