Sponsorship Matchmakers in North America

With government austerity programs around the world laying waste to production funds, tapping new streams of financing has become every bit as painstaking a process for producers and broadcasters of factual programming as unearthing intriguing subject matter....
September 1, 1997

With government austerity programs around the world laying waste to production funds, tapping new streams of financing has become every bit as painstaking a process for producers and broadcasters of factual programming as unearthing intriguing subject matter.

Perhaps no single broadcaster understands the implications of shifting funding dynamics more than pbs. For pbs, corporate sponsorship is a way of life. Without the sponsorship of companies such as Merck Pharmaceuticals and The Prudential, or Liberty Mutual and Scott’s Miracle Grow (underwriters respectively of Nova and American Experience) PBS would simply be unable to deliver their brand of programming.

Jonathan Abbott, vp for development and corporate relations at PBS, admits that broadcasters must constantly reinvent themselves. ‘The challenge for us over the last year has been to figure out a new way of presenting ourselves to corporate decision-makers and to their advertising agencies so they can plan ahead and really consider us a viable place to spend their marketing and promotional dollars.’

Abbott says forethought is critical to sponsorship relationships. ‘We’re looking at our pipeline of programs, knowing that if we can describe these programs far enough in advance to get that type of leadership commitment from corporate sponsors, then we’re assured of having the resources available to make the projects happen.’

Until recently, producers pitched their ideas to sponsors on a project-by-project basis, problematic according to Abbott because ‘there’s really no efficiency, no economy of scale. We were going in with one or two projects, talking to the same people over and over.’

To this end, the PBS Sponsorship Group was launched this summer.

Led by Peter Greene, a 20-year vet of the ad biz, the sponsorship group is, according to Abbott, ‘a new company we’ve formed with four of our major producers [PBS sister stations] in New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Washington.’ The portfolio represents about 65% of PBS programming, and Abbott anticipates bringing more independent producers into the fold as the group evolves.

The hook for corporate clients, like anything else in this age of market-over-matter, is a marriage of convenience between a program’s built-in demographics and a sponsor who values those numbers.

Consequently, the sponsorship fees bandied about by Abbott are impressive. ‘For one-shot projects, it can run anywhere between $50,000 and $100,000. We have sponsors coming in on major primetime series or children’s series and securing multimillion-dollar grants.’

In Canada, Don Sherrett of Toronto-based EventTV works these same trenches, but with a difference. Sherrett works with producers, broadcasters and corporate sponsors in an attempt to align and satisfy the needs of each party.

Sherrett, who spent five years as head of corporate sponsorship at Canada’s public broadcaster, the CBC, realized that producers and broadcasters were going to be forced to become savvy marketers. ‘Most producers, as good as they are at producing, are not good marketers,’ says Sherrett.

For Sherrett, who has successfully married Canadian dramatic fare to the likes of IBM and Esso (Imperial Oil), it’s important to make producers aware of the limits of a sponsorship deal upfront.

‘When they sell their rights to a broadcaster, they own no commercial rights whatsoever. They don’t own any billboards to the program or any commercial time on the program. And the problem is, after they’ve sold the show, they think, ‘Boy, I could use another fifteen, twenty, hundred thousand dollars to top off my production.’

Sherrett and producers are now looking to broadcasters to become ‘partners in the whole process.’

For example, if a broadcaster allows the producer the opening and closing billboards in addition to a license fee, Sherrett and the producers can use these spots as bargaining chips to lure potential corporate sponsors with ‘outside the box activities.’

Of course, the sponsorship issue would soon become irrelevant if viewers felt skewered, fixed squarely in the corporate cross-hares. Luckily, Abbott’s research indicates pbs viewers aren’t particularly averse to it.

‘Our viewers understand that corporate sponsors are a valuable part of the partnerships that make programs possible, and that sponsor income is one of the ways we cobble together the funds to commit to producers.’

To hear Sherrett tell it, those viewers not in tune with the financial constraints facing the industry better get the picture quick. ‘What’s starting to happen now is that sponsors are driving specific programs. I have corporate clients right now who are trying to find a producer to produce a program specifically for them. There’s a real fine line between the art form and commercialization.’

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.