Single-sponsor TV shows return

The shifting media and advertising climate leads back to `branded' programs

December 04, 2006|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun Reporter

Television viewers old enough to remember Texaco Star Theater or the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars from a few decades ago may feel a sense of deja vu this evening if they turn on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.

At the top of the half-hour show, an announcer will intone that it is being "brought to you with limited commercial interruption by Philips."

Usually replete with commercials, the newscast will have just one sponsor, the electronics giant Philips, which will run three ads totaling a mere one minute and 15 seconds - a far cry from the 14 spots that typically take up about seven minutes of Nightly News air time. Monday, the show will instead offer at least two longer news stories, each running about four minutes.

NBC's move, which was inspired by a similar deal a year ago between Philips and CBS News for a broadcast of 60 Minutes, is part of an increasingly visible trend toward so-called branded entertainment, a newfangled term for something that was done frequently in the early days of radio and television.

The trend is being driven primarily by advertisers' fear that, with gadgets like TiVo that enable viewers to zip past commercials, audiences are tuning ads out, severely lessening their impact. The thinking is that with branded shows and fewer commercials, audiences will be more tolerant of pitches and the occasional interruption.

"People have many more choices," said John R. Kelly, senior vice president for network news advertising at NBC. "This is a way to stand out from the crowd. With this campaign, Philips feels that by offering less they're getting more."

As far back as 2002, Ford Motor Co. sponsored the premiere of the second season of Fox's hit drama 24, which was shown without commercial breaks.

We may not see Taco Bell's Grey's Anatomy any time soon, said Ed Robertson, an author, pop-culture critic and television historian, referring to the trend of putting corporate sponsors' names on, say, sports stadiums.

Alternative platforms

But the enormous increase in alternative platforms for programs, which can now be accessed through cell phones, iPods and other hand-held devices, means that advertisers and television producers need to radically alter their thinking.

"More and more people are watching shows without actually owning a TV," Robertson said from his office in Visalia, Calif. "Between MySpace.com and logging onto network sites like ABC.com, it is entirely possible to watch shows and viral videos with no set. If that trend continues, and if you're an advertiser, it certainly makes sense to go back to the old model."

That "old model" of single-brand sponsorship harks back to the days when watching television was an event, Robertson said, because far fewer people had one and it was still considered a novelty. In many instances, advertisers had creative control over programs and sometimes threatened to pull their sponsorship if their demands on hiring or content were not met.

While no such control is being ceded these days to advertisers who choose to be the sole sponsor of a show, some companies have teamed up with their advertising agencies to create TV programs, films and online shows. Some cable networks have run such programs in recent months, including TNT, MTV, TLC and ABC Family, whose show Schooled was created by Office Max, a retailer of workplace supplies and furniture.

Robertson predicted that advertisers' logos will be placed in a corner of TV screens during certain shows in much the same way that network or channel logos often appear now. "That's the next logical step," he said.

Puneet Manchanda, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, said advertisers are rushing to adapt to technological advances.

"The relationships between advertisers and consumers is changing from a one-way communication - in which we tell you what we have, why it's good for you and why you should consider it - to a two-way communication, where consumers are having some control over how they receive the communication and how they provide feedback to the advertisers," he said.

Manchanda, who studies the effect of advertising on consumer behavior, said branded programs are a good first step in improving the relationship between advertisers and consumers, many of whom are fed up with commercials.

"It's a richer and more memorable form of communication," he said. "If I want to watch Desperate Housewives and it's sponsored by, say, Colgate, and I know that upfront, then it helps me to build a relationship with Colgate because I'm not annoyed by their ads."

However, Manchanda added, not everyone is irritated by commercials. Quite the contrary, he said: Some people like them. Web sites and blogs are given over to the likes and dislikes of advertising fans.

Besides, he said, TiVo owners' much-vaunted ability to forward through ads is less significant than it seems, given studies that show that many of the ads still register on viewers' consciousness, if only fleetingly.

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