The Middle Player Steps Up

Once upon a time, producers just made programs for networks, broadcasters just bought shows, and advertisers just paid for ad spots. Not any longer.
March 1, 2004

Once upon a time, producers just made programs for networks, broadcasters just bought shows, and advertisers just paid for ad spots. Not any longer.

Increasingly, advertising agencies, keen to find new ways of breaking through to consumers, are turning directly to independent factual producers to develop and execute programming designed to meet their client’s marketing goals.

Additionally, broadcasters such as NBC, ESPN2 and Discovery Communications are getting into the sponsored-programming business because it offers big-budget content minus the hefty production bill. A common component of such deals is the provision of ad-time to clients on barter – for example, a program or series in exchange for so many ad-break slots. Although deals between the three parties can be complicated and involve months of confidential negotiations, many producers are taking the lead in this developing business model.

Hollywood-based Reveille is one prodco that is capitalizing on the trend. For U.S. net NBC’s reality hit The Restaurant, Ben Silverman, the company’s CEO (and a former William Morris talent agent), brokered deals that maneuvered what is typically low-budget specialty-cable fare – a reality series about a fledgling business, in this case a New York eatery – onto primetime network TV with a million-dollar-an-episode budget.

He first secured the interest of NBC, then landed Magna Global Entertainment (MGE), a New York-based unit of brand management giant Magna Global, to handle the show’s advertising component (brand plugs in the show and its breaks included Mitsubishi, American Express and Coors, all brought in by MGE). To better ensure a ratings hit, Silverman hired someone with a record of primetime success to oversee production – reality pro Mark Burnett.

Reveille and MGE are now developing season two of The Restaurant. For this season there is only one integrated brand – Mitsubishi – and NBC is providing a license fee. As Page points out, the drop in the number of sponsors reflects the ever-changing priorities of marketers; in other words, AmEx and Coors determined that the series was no longer the best way to promote their names.

The two companies are also preparing for the June launch of a similarly integrated reality series. Called Blow Out, it will be carried by NBC’s Bravo cable channel and will follow fashion stylist Jonathan Antin as he strives to open a high-end salon in Beverly Hills. In both cases, MGE shares ownership of the program with Reveille, which also manages the ancillary rights, including distribution. As Silverman explains, success in this business model hinges on the potential of the show. ‘It’s about having a product that an audience will respond to…you need the shows to work and the deals will follow,’ he says.

Many ad agencies have set up dedicated units to develop long-form programming opportunities for their clients. They are interested in receiving ideas directly from indie prodcos and will take on finding the broadcast partner. But as Mark Boyd, the director of content at London-based BartleBogleHegarty (whose clients include Levi’s, Audi, and Sony Ericsson) cautions, pitching agencies requires an understanding of their clients’ marketing goals. ‘There needs to be an associative link with brands…[For instance] a program about the mating habits of penguins is not likely to be a good fit with many mainstream brands,’ explains Boyd.

Although shows with product placement are the most common example of marketing-funded programming, producers shouldn’t assume that their pitch must contain such elements. ‘What’s important is weaving an advertiser’s marketing message into a story in such a way that viewers are happy to hear it, and don’t find it intrusive,’ says Frances Page, the head of strategy and business affairs at MGE. If viewers feel like they are watching a glorified infomercial they will probably tune out – something not worth risking when budgets rank in the millions.

Ad agencies are also actively seeking out A-list doc-makers to helm shows on a work-for-hire basis. Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays in the Picture) landed the direction of a mid six-figure doc project after Nike’s Brand Jordan division asked its ad agency to develop a ‘non-traditional method’ of raising its profile. Gary Kreig, the head of New York productions at Wieden and Kennedy (WK), says Morgen was hired to direct The Sweet Science, a one-hour profile of Roy Jones Jr., a pro boxer Brand Jordan sponsors, after WK interviewed a number of established doc-makers about the project. Morgen’s involvement lasted only as long as production, and Krieg notes Brand Jordan owns all rights to the program. The fully-funded doc aired in primetime on espn2 in December.

While deal models vary widely, these shows raise the question of editorial control – do they represent editorial or advertorial content? A bit of both is the answer. As Page points out, ‘The client has control over how its message is integrated in the program, but the network has final creative control over what goes over its airwaves.’ The investment model and number of players, as always, dictates input levels.

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.