Writing New Recipes For Network TV

'Restaurant' creators offer ideas for the future

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%%STORYIMAGE_RIGHT%% With "The Restaurant" coming back for a second season on NBC, a quartet of key execs behind the limited-reality series shared their stories in executing client-supported programming at a panel discussion at last week's National Association of Television Program Executives confab in Las Vegas.

"Survivor" creator Mark Burnett; Ben Silverman, CEO of Universal Television-backed production company Reveille; Robert Riesenberg, the newly minted Omnicom branded entertainment exec; and Jeff Gaspin, president of Bravo and alternative programming chief at sister network NBC, shared their insights with a packed house, reporting progress but with much room for refinement.

With networks increasingly squeezed by the onerous deficit-financing model, Silverman pitched the concept to Gaspin and NBC Entertainment President Jeff Zucker as a vehicle that would help the Peacock with cost containment while offering brands a different platform.

"The Jeffs viewed it like any project but were open to the idea that we would do it branded and had a huge comfort level with Rocco and, of course, with Mark[Burnett], who has the midas touch," said Silverman. Silverman enlisted Riesenberg, at the time, director of Magna Global Entertainment, who was able to secure American Express, Coors and Mitsubishi, to help underwrite the show.


A barter deal was struck by the producers and the network, whereby the Peacock didn't have to pay a license fee and in return, gave up roughly half of the ad inventory to the producers, thus alleviating the financial risk to the network for an unproven property. The three brands were given category exclusivity and product integration, including prominent screen time in the show's intro, for their investment.

"Our whole approach to advertisers in this new paradigm is to use television as a marketing platform. It's not about product placement; much of it is about what happens outside of the show, not just what happens inside," said Riesenberg. "We like forming relationships with networks because we can also help them promote their shows. In the end, AmEx stepped up in a big way."

While the deal and marketing around the show may have gone smoothly, the show has taken some heat for falling short in the integration of the brands into the show.

"It's a very complicated subject. Normally we deliver rough cuts to a network," said Burnett. "Here we were turning in rough cuts to Universal, Magna, NBC, American Express, Mitsubishi and Coors." Burnett said some of the notes that came from the sponsors were from those fairly low down the chain who have their asses on the line, who've risked it all with an innovative way of doing programming, who wanted nothing but their product wall-to-wall." In the end, "all three sponsors pulled back themselves."

Riesenberg also asserted that the viewing public watches television through a decidedly different filter. "We're all in the business so we're looking at it with a critical eye…we did research as well as one of our clients and the response was overwhelmingly positive toward the show and the brands that were in it."


While brand-supported programs in reality TV are becoming more commonplace, can we expect more of it in the scripted realm?

Riesenberg, for one, has closed a deal for a limited dramatic series over the summer with the advertiser likely contributing about the same license fee as the network would.

"In very much the way AmEx used Rocco to help promote viewership, there are ways you can do the same thing with dramatic television," said Riesenberg. "That is the more interesting model for what we're doing. I would never suggest to an advertiser that they get in the deficiting business; they're in the marketing business."

Burnett points to the acceptance of multiple brands in the James Bond franchise as indication that the public will accept product integration in scripted television. As for resistance from the creative community, Burnett has several scripted shows on his slate, which includes a show he's developing for NBC called "Eden" where he is collaborating with Academy Award-nominated writer("An Officer and a Gentleman") Douglas Day Stewart. "He's an eminent writer and he'd never been asked before to work with advertisers but he's open to it," said Burnett.

Gaspin still sees much resistance. "Most producers will use the excuse of not wanting to listen to so many voices. The truth is some of them don't know the process like these guys here do; they don't know the Roberts of the world." He does think scripted producers will come around on the issue. "It's just a matter of time. The business is going to change and we have to figure out how to make it work going forward."

Even if you get Hollywood creatives on board, there is also the sticky matter of getting network ad sales to be more receptive to new models asking them to share ad inventory with producers. "I personally found, in my journey pushing that agenda, on the scripted side much more resistance than on the alternative side," said Silverman.

%%PULLQUOTE_LEFT%% Gaspin indicated that it took awhile to convince his sales team to let "The Restaurant" model happen. But he reported that they saw that it worked and they're going to allow it to go forward with another project. "It's just one step at a time; that's all it is."

As the new models evolve and brands become more entrenched in financing, what of possible new revenue streams?

"If someone thinks they're able to make one investment in one show and that's going to be a hit and an annuity for them, they will not likely last a long time," said Silverman.

Riesenberg agreed. "An advertiser should not be getting into this business for the backend. For their contribution they're entitled to a piece of that; they don't want to make a stupid deal. But the motivating factor should be to sell their products. It's all about marketing."

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