Breaking with the 30-second spot

In television's early days, sponsorships and product placements were as common as saddle shoes and poodle skirts. Even the term 'soap opera' derives from this era, a nod to the long-standing ties between daytime dramas and their sudsy sponsors.
April 1, 2002

In television’s early days, sponsorships and product placements were as common as saddle shoes and poodle skirts. Even the term ‘soap opera’ derives from this era, a nod to the long-standing ties between daytime dramas and their sudsy sponsors.

Over the years, however, the relationship between advertisers and broadcasters changed. The predominant place for advertising became the 30-second commercial spot – supportive of, but distinct from, program content.

Today, commercials remain well entrenched, but the combination of market fragmentation and the rising popularity of digital video technologies such as TiVo – which allow viewers to zap adverts – has broadcasters scrambling to find new ways to attract ad dollars.

On terrestrial TV, particularly in the U.S., the old ideas of sponsorship and product placement have renewed appeal. The contemporary twist is the primetime opportunity presented by reality shows. Some, like CBS’s Survivor, have adopted traditional strategies. Others, like No Boundaries (airing on The WB in the U.S. and on Global Television Network in Canada), are taking the concepts to new levels.

At the cable and digital tiers, the integration of advertising and programming has advanced even further and, in some cases, taken a completely different form.

Pushing the boundaries

The debut of No Boundaries – a 13 x 1-hour adventure reality series in which 15 participants trek from Vancouver Island to the Arctic Circle over 30 days, with one contestant emerging as the winner – marks a watershed for program-makers, broadcasters and advertisers. Produced by Canada’s Lions Gate Television, sponsored by Ford and broadcast simultaneously on The WB (U.S.) and Global (Canada), the show exemplifies an enhanced sponsorship scenario. The U.S. car manufacturer not only put up more than 80% of the funds for the US$500,000-per-episode production of No Boundaries, it played an active role in the planning and execution of the series (through its Detroit ad agency, J. Walter Thompson).

According to Kevin Beggs, president of TV production for Lions Gate Television, everyone is satisfied with the results. ‘We have a show that stands on its own. It’s creatively engaging and it premiered with strong ratings in both Canada and the U.S. If someone saw it and knew nothing about the business aspects, he would be hard-pressed to say this is a sponsor-supplied show.’

The show has attracted a notable audience share for each channel – 810,000 viewers tuned into Global for the first episode, 2.2 million to The WB – but Beggs’ latter claim is debatable, given the level of product integration in No Boundaries. At the beginning of each show, shots of Ford sport utility vehicles are featured in the titles. In most, if not all, episodes, contestants climb in and out of Ford SUVs to get from point A to point B. The Ford Explorer Sport Trac is mentioned each week as part of the prize package. Even the title No Boundaries is directly drawn from Ford’s tagline.

Still, Beggs maintains that the car company’s involvement at no point jeopardized the series’ integrity. ‘Everything that we’re doing, we would have been doing. If you see the original show [71 Degrees North, a format owned by the Scandinavian Broadcasting System and optioned to Lions Gate], they also had to clamor into vans. [Ford's] involvement was completely organic to the show. We didn’t reverse engineer the show to fit them at any point. That’s partially why they reacted so positively when they saw it.’

Lions Gate contacted Ford’s ad agency J. Walter Thompson about the series after getting a tip that the car company wanted to do something with original programming. Recalls Beggs, ‘We were already out pitching and selling and then it was, ‘Hey, this could really work for Ford.’ We worked out an agreement with Ford in which they would sponsor the show and fund a good portion of it. With that, interest became offers at both The WB and Global.’

J. Walter Thompson became actively involved in the production – from selecting participants to overseeing how the vehicles were presented – but Lions Gate remained the main contact for both broadcasters.

Loren Mawhinney, VP of Canadian production for Global, liked the concept of the show and was delighted with the bonus of a sponsor. ‘It means more dollars went into the program that weren’t totally dependent on our own ad sales,’ she explains. Ford’s participation also attracted Ford Canada, which purchased 30-second spots.

The prodco’s arrangement with Global was traditional – the broadcaster paid a license fee and, therefore, bought the right to sell commercial time. The WB deal was more complex. Notes Beggs, ‘It’s a combination of production funding in exchange for ad time and other marketing.’

After No Boundaries, Mawhinney says she’s game to try a similar approach in the future. ‘We have more fragmentation in our universe, and the ad pot isn’t growing… The pie keeps getting smaller, so we’re looking at ways our clients will find the environment attractive enough to participate. This is a clever way of doing it.’

Beyond the U.S. nets

While sponsorship may be just beginning a renaissance on U.S. network television, it has remained the backbone of pbs over the past few decades. Of course, that can be attributed to the fact that U.S. public television offers uninterrupted programming. Nonetheless, PBS has proved sponsorship can be a viable alternative to 30-second spots over a protracted period.

One of pbs’s most enduring sponsor partnerships is with General Motors, which has offered long-standing support of Ken Burns’ documentaries. Part of the appeal for gm is the number of eyeballs Burns’ documentaries attract, but it’s more than that. Tracey Beeker, VP of licensing and strategic partnerships, explains: ‘When people think about GM and about public television, they know [GM] is an active sponsor of Ken Burns’ programs. We found through research that we’ve done with our viewers that they’re pretty savvy about who these sponsors are, and they’re more apt to buy into the goods and services that our sponsors support, because they support public television.’

A pbs sponsor typically gets one 15-second spot at the start of a program and another at the end. Sponsors don’t generally have a say in editorial content, but can reinforce their public television ties through community outreach. When PBS signed Coca-Cola as a sponsor for R.J. Cutler’s American High, the soda giant also agreed to fund and organize discussion forums for teens and parents.

In the U.K., sponsorship is an underdeveloped market, says Andy Barnes, Channel 4′s commercial director. C4 has secured some deals for factual programs – a series about homes called A Place in the Sun has juice company Tropicana, and a car show called Driven has Direct Line insurance company – but it’s not a big part of their business, neither is it likely to be. Explains Barnes, ‘It’s probably around five percent of our revenue. It could get to 10%, but not one third.’

Interest in developing sponsorships may be taking a backseat to another alternative ad strategy – interactive advertising. Barnes notes that U.K. digital transmission allows advertisers to put an icon on the TV screen with a walled ‘garden’ of options (i.e. product prices, sizes, colors) for viewers who choose to click through. C4 already has one such arrangement with car manufacturer Renault.

Pride of place

The U.S. isn’t far behind the U.K., with regard to interactive advertising. As the sales of digital video recorders and digital televisions accelerate, so too will advertisers’ interest in this approach to consumers. Jay May, president of L.A.-based product placement agency Feature This, predicts the majority of U.S. homes will have digital sets within two to three years, and says advertisers are already preparing for it. ‘You’ll be watching a show and a character will walk by wearing a red sweater. With TiVo [for example] you’ll be able to pause the show, using your remote as a cursor, and click on the sweater, and it will say, ‘Available at ___ for $99.95. Would you like to order it now?’ That’s where product placement is going.’

Although May acknowledges this is the future of his business, he isn’t happy about it. He explains: ‘It is not good for the public. Nobody ever meant for viewers to stop watching a show so they can purchase something. People are annoyed at commercials interrupting that great scene that was about to come up. Now, they’ll be interrupting that great scene themselves, because they stopped to shop.’

Interactive product placement hasn’t quite arrived on U.S. television, but conventional product placement has, particularly on reality shows. Program-maker Mark Burnett has embraced it wholeheartedly for Survivor, as has broadcaster CBS. Says Burnett, ‘Product placement became a part of Survivor because the financial implications of the network ordering a complete series, versus a pilot, made it very risky. The only way to lessen that risk was to work with the network to sell sponsorships, versus spot advertising, before we began filming.’

Several companies snapped up the spots and earned their place in Survivor lore. Who can forget scenes of host Jeff Probst handing over a visa or parched contestants greedily tossing back cans of Mountain Dew? Even though the placements were obvious, Burnett contends they were a good fit in the overall story arc of the show. ‘Here’s a bunch of Americans surviving on an island and competing for rewards. Why shouldn’t those rewards be a slice of Americana? The audience enjoyed it and the benefit to the sponsors was enormous.’

May concurs with Burnett on the appeal product placement holds for advertisers: ‘If you place a one-page ad with the top newspapers, you’re lucky if you reach two or three million people. If you do a product placement in a feature film or reality show, you’re looking at a minimum of 25 to 40 million people.’ And, if advertisers are happy, broadcasters are happy. Notes Burnett, ‘All of these product placements and enhancements were just that – enhancements. What they’re really buying are the 30-second spots. That’s the biggest value.’

Survivor may have sparked a trend. New York-based prodco Reveille – the new venture of Ben Silverman, a former agent with the William Morris talent agency – is actively pursuing program ideas with good potential for product placements. Howard Owens, Reveille’s VP of creative affairs, describes one: ‘It’s a show called The Restaurant, which we’re producing with Tribeca Films [Robert De Niro's prodco]. It takes place in lower Manhattan and it’s two-tiered. On one side, it’s a reality show about the making of a successful night-spot/high-end restaurant. On the other end it’s like Candid Camera.’

Owens says that while the concept is ripe for product placements, and will likely include them, he isn’t interested in delivering a fully ad-supplied show. ‘On a 13-week episodic, you want network support, you want them to have a vested interest in it… At least that’s our initial take on it.’ Owens says a U.S. network has committed to The Restaurant, which will debut later this year.

Stripe-ing it rich

Cable and digital broadcasters that cater to niche audiences and support smaller program budgets than those afforded by terrestrials are also finessing their relationship with advertisers. Oxygen – a U.S. cable outlet founded in 1998 positioning itself as a channel for discerning women – is counting on the power of its brand, and the willingness of advertisers to constantly align themselves with it, to help distinguish the channel in the competitive women’s market. Oxygen is also offering advertisers an on-screen opportunity to communicate more information than what’s in a 30-second ad spot. All of this is achieved with a little black stripe that continually runs along the bottom of the screen during programs and commercials.

Geoffrey Darby, president of production and convergence for Oxygen, explains that the stripe (which takes up 12% of the total ntsc signal) is programmed by whoever occupies the rest of the screen. ‘When we’re running The Isaac Mizrahi Show, that show programs the content of the stripe. When we’re running an ad, the advertiser programs the content of the stripe, except for the little corner that says Oxygen, which belongs to the corporation,’ he says. That corner, continues Darby, allows the channel to brand itself during commercials and enables the advertiser to associate with Oxygen at all times. ‘That’s good for the brand and good for the advertiser,’ he says.

The content of the stripe is published independently and coordinated with the program or ad just before transmission. This allows the message to be changed frequently and at the last minute. During programs, the stripe has been used for observations, live viewer chats and posting poll results. Advertisers often use it to direct viewers to promotional activities and websites. ‘We encourage them to use the stripe creatively,’ says Darby. ‘You don’t want to fight what’s happening on the other 88% of the screen, but it can provide additional messaging and update creative without [shooting a new commercial].’ Advertising content doesn’t run in the stripe during editorial programming, except for messages from program sponsors, who are allotted 30 seconds in the stripe following a commercial break. But, the potential is there.

Oxygen has a patent pending on use of the stripe for commerce. Explains Darby, ‘If the patent goes through and a channel wanted to use [the stripe] on the screen for commerce purposes, they would have to license it from us.’

The stripe also has interactive applications. ‘In our AOL TV prototype, the stripe is clickable,’ says Darby. ‘If you have a website in the stripe and you click on it, it will bring up the website.’

Similar but different

Niche casters are also going the route of blending editorial and ad content through sponsored programs. But, where No Boundaries embraces its title and boldly features Ford vehicles in a Ford-sponsored show, others hesitate to break the historical barrier (or the semblance of a barrier) between content and commercials. Instead, advertisers are approaching broadcasters to create programming that reflects a product’s brand ideals, but still blends with the outlet’s editorial mandate. The result is more insidious, and some argue more effective with today’s media-savvy viewers.

Since July 2001, Discovery Channel and CNN have programmed one-minute vignettes that feature ordinary people from around the globe who lead extraordinary lives. Yngeve Bergqvist explains his desire to build the now famous ice hotel in Sweden, Vedran Smailovic recounts why he started playing his cello in the war-torn streets of Sarajevo, law teacher Valdessara Bertolino in Brazil chooses to take the train to work so she can dispense free legal advice to people unable to access conventional avenues for such service.

The vignettes are part of a 42-part series financed by Johnnie Walker whisky, which approached Discovery to develop content that would tie into the company’s then year-old ‘Keep Walking’ advertising campaign. The campaign features the ‘Striding Man’ logo and aims to inspire personal progress. ‘We had done a series of fillers called Discovery People, which looked at some pretty high profile people who had done great things,’ says Monica Mather, regional director of international advertising sales for Discovery Networks Europe. ‘We suggested taking that to the man in the street.’

Although the concept was collaborative, production of the series was not. The project was commissioned to Coast Productions in London, U.K., which focused on human interest and adventure stories for the Discovery series Personal Journeys. The CNN series Life Journeys features entrepreneurial stories. Says Mather, ‘It was in the contract that we maintain editorial control. That’s important, because otherwise the vignettes might not fit the editorial environment of the channel, and that misses the point. What [the advertiser] is trying to do is cut through the commercial clutter, so they have to produce something that fits in and looks like a program, something the viewers will feel at ease with and not look at as a commercial. Because of that, they will pay more attention to it.’ Johnnie Walker was given the authority to veto a story idea, but Mather says the company never exercised that right.

The vignettes, which are listed in the schedule as programs, premiere at the same time every night – in the 11 p.m. slot in most regions. Each vignette is preceded and followed by a five-second Johnnie Walker billboard. ‘In terms of positioning, the vignettes are separated from commercials,’ explains Mather. ‘Particularly in the European schedule it’s very easy to do this. You can cut it so there is a promo after a program and then there is avignette, then a promo, and then you go to commercials.’

In addition to the vignettes, Johnnie Walker placed 30-second commercials throughout the CNN and Discovery schedules. The entire Keep Walking campaign cost about £100 million (US$142 million) and Mather estimates the Discovery/CNN deal garnered about 10% of that budget. ‘Money-wise it’s very attractive,’ she adds.

Mather reveals that Johnnie Walker is extending the campaign for another year, and notes that similar partnerships are likely in the future: ‘There’s certainly more interest in producing short-form programs in the last couple of years. If it’s something that’s going to add to the enjoyment of our viewers, then we’ll consider doing it. [The advertiser] pays for production, or even half of production, and we get something that interests viewers. Everyone is happy.’

Häagen-Dazs ice cream is currently in early discussions with Discovery. Mather is reluctant to give details, but says talks center on programming concepts that are ‘bigger’ than the Johnnie Walker vignettes. She adds, ‘In the European market we’ve been looking at cutting our clock differently. Rather than producing just hour-long programs, we’re producing five-minute or eight-minute programs. That’s the type of thing advertisers can get involved in coproduction or full production.’

If you want it done right…

Canadian multi-media company Bell Globemedia recently partnered with General Motors and media management company M2 Universal to create advertiser-inspired content that moves beyond vignettes. On March 24, 2002, Canadian Bell Globemedia-owned television outlets (including terrestrial broadcaster CTV, and specialty cable/digital channels Discovery, TSN and Report On Business Television) aired the first part of a 3 x 30-minute series on innovation. The segments focus on technology, then design and finally business – three areas GM wants to associate with the new line of Cadillacs launching this year.

The series is part of a larger media buy that includes content development, an advertising presence within that content, and a coordinated promotion of Cadillac across Bell Globemedia print and online outlets. No other automotive manufacturer can advertise during the series.

‘GM wanted to provide the new Cadillac brand with a platform that provided a strong connection to consumers and showcased, in an appropriate environment, what the new Cadillac brand really stands for,’ says Hugh Dow, president of M2 Universal. ‘The tricky part was finding content that was appropriate and suitable. ‘

Like the Discovery/CNN partnership with Johnnie Walker, Bell Globemedia commissioned an independent producer to create the program content. Says series producer Dorothy Engelman of Toronto-based qmedia solutions, ‘There was never any sense that [GM] was allowed editorial comment, as much as they were kept in the loop with what we were doing. I did outlines that changed and adapted a little bit, but the main stories stayed the same.’

In other words, GM didn’t ask that the content refer specifically to gm products. However, the technology segment includes a product originally commissioned for GM, a fact with which Engelman initially struggled. ‘PortfolioWall, created by Alias|Wavefront, is amazing and it’s all about collaborating with technology. I wanted to show technology affecting our lives and helping us innovate,’ she explains.

‘I spent two weeks researching and this still came up as one of the most innovative technologies in the workplace. Dropping it would have been me influenced by a wrong-headedness. My journalistic instincts told me it was the right story to do.’

Dow agrees, ‘If the Cadillac content is relevant to the overall program concept, and is of interest to the target we’re trying to reach, that can be developed without impacting the integrity of the program. It’s an area we’re treading carefully – it’s important we don’t destroy the integrity of the program.’ The series carries a total budget of CDN$200,000 (US$125,500).

Dow says advertisers are becoming less inclined to merely hope that media outlets will create programming that reaches the desired target audience, and predicts viewers will continue to see a much closer involvement between content and the messages advertisers want to communicate.

He admits, however, that although the 30-minute programs are important to this particular deal, they don’t carry the real media weight. Instead, Dow estimates the 90-second and 120-second vignettes that incorporate editorial and ad content will result in the most exposure and impact.

Given this, it’s the smaller channels that probably benefit the most. Says Jack Fleishmann, general manager of ROBTv, ‘[This deal] brings a sponsor to the table who’s willing to fund content. Three half-hour network quality programs are not insignificant.’

Fleishmann estimates 70% of ROBTv’s total ad sales are associated with sponsorship of some kind.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.