|Mark Burnett is expanding his company's capabilities for brokering and managing large-scale brand integration deals for TV shows.
The move comes amidst increased tensions between TV networks and the production community over the control of brand integrations and the profits they generate. Network executives have said they prefer to funnel such arrangements through their own ad sales departments so the business can be an extension of a marketer's media buy.
The Mark Burnett Productions expansion plan involves the eventual hiring as many as eight more staffers dedicated to brokering and managing these kinds of deals, according to executives. The recruitment effort is targeting networks, ad agencies and other companies for potential hires.
The move is unique, considering that most Hollywood production houses have at most a single executive devoted to managing such deals.
In a phone discussion with Madison & Vine this afternoon, Burnett Productions' Conrad Riggs declined to discuss any details of the company's expansion activities.
Among the first of four executives hired recently is Shannon Sweeney, who worked on brand integration deals while at 19 Entertainment, which, along with FremantleMedia North America, produced Fox's ratings juggernaut American Idol. Ms. Sweeney along with the other new staffers, will report to Dan Gill who reports to Mr. Riggs. The company does not use titles for its executives; Mr. Riggs' position is equivalent to that of president in other corporations.
Two other recent hires for the team are Keith Quinn, who formerly worked for Live Planet, the production company founded by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Chris Moore, and Brian Philo, who worked in ad sales for KNBC-TV.
Members of the beefed up Burnett integration team will sign advertisers for product integration into the company's shows and help develop branded entertainment programs for specific marketers, according to executives. They will manage the deals and serve as liaisons to the brands, making sure that marketers get what they expect from the partnership.
Mr. Burnett is best known for Survivor and The Apprentice, in which advertisers play a prominent role on-screen in the entertainment and off-air as marketing partners. The second season of The Apprentice, airing now on NBC, drew in blue-chip marketers such as Hasbro, Toys "R" Us, Procter & Gamble Co. and Pepsi-Cola Co., which paid $1 million each in integration fees. The next season already has deals in place, for fees as high as $5 million, with advertisers including Sony, Visa International and Verizon Wireless. Meanwhile, the rush of marketers into the product integration market is rapidly pushing demand for services -- and prices -- higher.
Survivor, a forerunner in the genre that's pulling in strong ratings since its recent 10th season premiere, has been picked up for its 11th and 12th seasons on CBS. Mr. Burnett is behind the upcoming boxing reality show on NBC, The Contender, which has millions of dollars in brand-backing from companies like Toyota, Gatorade, Sierra Mist, Everlast and Home Depot. Also upcoming: a daytime and prime-time series starring Martha Stewart.
His company also has a number of shows in development, all with potential for brand integration. His music-based program called Rock Star will hit CBS this summer; the network has ordered three months' worth of episodes of the show, which will look for a lead singer for the band INXS to replace the late Michael Hutchence. Another CBS project in the works would follow law enforcement officers as they try to recover kidnapped children and return them to their parents.
Marianne Gambelli, NBC Universal's executive vice president of sales and marketing, said at the recent Madison & Vine conference that NBC has been trying to "rein in" producers who make their own deals with marketers.
Producers, on the other hand, say they need to make up the deficit between the licensing fee that a network pays for a show and the actual cost of producing it. They are increasingly doing that by inviting marketers into the content. Producers have said they are better able than a network to make the creative marriage between the two, and they also benefit from the added marketing muscle that an integration partner brings.
"Networks' ad sales mentality is very different from ours," said Dave Broome, one of the executive producers of The Biggest Loser on NBC. "They want to sell ads, and I understand that. But you can't cram an integration into a show just because someone sold an ad. The integration deals should lead to ad sales, not the other way around."
NBC, for one, recently dedicated several executives to the area of brand integration, working on smoothing out the relationships of all involved parties. Other networks may follow suit.
Several marketers at the Madison & Vine conference said they prefer going to the source -- the content producers -- to be as close to the creative process as possible. That's when they feel they are getting the most value from their association and are best able to make their objectives known, they said.
Most of Hollywood's creative community understands they must work with network executives to make a project come to life, with or without integration.
"You can't slip anything in, whether it's a casting choice or an off-color remark or a paid product integration," said one senior level executive at a Hollywood production studio. "The networks have final say over every element that goes on their air. You can't spring anything on them."
Some say, however, that Mr. Burnett may be in a class by himself because he's been so successful with his reality shows. He's frequently called the 800-pound gorilla of the TV business. If he brings in an integration partner on his own, a network isn't likely to turn down his project because of it, industry watchers say. A less established producer may not fare as well. As Mr. Burnett bulks up his in-house integration specialists, his clout is likely to increase.