In This Year's Upfront, It's All About Branded Entertainment

Marketers Get More Engagement With Content While Networks Can Charge More for Exclusive Relationships

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NEW YORK ( -- A new deal-making process is grabbing attention during the biggest buying time of the TV season: Branded-entertainment conversations are taking precedence over large-volume prime-time bookings this upfront.

To get that $16 billion in cable- and broadcast-TV upfront dollars on the table, the networks are increasingly offering marketers the option to meld their brands' DNA into a story or cause that captures an audience's interest. And that might be a good idea:
GM is the exclusive sponsor of 'Greensburg,' a documentary series.
GM is the exclusive sponsor of 'Greensburg,' a documentary series. Credit: Steve Hebert
With ratings steadily declining and commercial ratings entering their second year as the upfront metric of choice, networks and marketers often fight a losing battle to keep viewers hooked during ad breaks. Branded entertainment is an increasingly attractive solution, giving marketers more engagement with products and allowing networks to charge more for exclusive relationships.

If you need convincing, look no further than Ben Silverman.

To allow time to secure long-term integrations with ad clients, NBC's co-president of entertainment took his network's 65-week program schedule to buyers a month ahead of time this year, dubbing his strategy an "infront." It's already generated a deal with General Motors that will integrate two of its new vehicles into the fall series "My Own Worst Enemy," starring Christian Slater.

Now, a trio of branded-entertainment deals on cable is adding further oomph to the upfront's status as a place for detailed marketing partnerships. GM has another deal with Discovery Communications, and Chrysler's Dodge, AT&T and Lowes have all committed to projects.

'Lucky Chance' for Challenger
TNT and Dodge will pair up in July for "Lucky Chance," a branded microseries produced by Espionage and Omnicom Group's Full Circle Entertainment. The 20-part series follows an undercover Drug Enforcement Agency agent named Lucky Chance who uses his 2009 Dodge Challenger to transport $50 million in four days to a mob boss threatening to blackmail him for a crime he didn't commit. The project began as a script written by Pete Pepe of Espionage and jointly developed with Full Circle, which pitched it to Turner as a branded mini-series. Linda Yaccarino, Turner Entertainment's exec VP-ad sales and marketing, said the project was developed through the same process as any of the network's other original dramas, with directors, writers, producers and ad clients all involved from day one. Consequently, AT&T also came onboard as an integrated sponsor for its global positioning system and will help Dodge cross-promote the series through on-air spots.

Dodge is using "Lucky Chance" as a launchpad for its national Challenger campaign, which will roll out later this year. Mark Spencer, senior manager of Dodge Communications, said the brand likely will use alternate footage from the "Lucky Chance" shoot as content for the car's other TV spots and online video ads.

Robert Riesenberg, president-CEO of Full Circle Entertainment, helped negotiate the Dodge and AT&T deal and, as the producer of "Chance," was able to change the traditional agency role in branded entertainment. As an Omnicom-affiliated production company, Full Circle offers projects to the holding company's brands on a first-look basis with a limited response window before offering it up to other agencies. Although Omnicom agency PHD was able to offer Dodge, Mr. Riesenberg ventured to WPP Group's Mediaedge:cia for AT&T.

In addition to its new NBC pact, GM has agreed to a marketing partnership with Discovery that will make its debut on the Planet Green network, which launches in 50 million homes on June 4. GM is the exclusive national and integrated sponsor of "Greensburg," a docu-series produced by Leonardo DiCaprio that focuses, in part, on a Kansas-based Chevrolet dealer who loses his dealership in a tornado and is in the process of rebuilding a new, environmentally friendly model. GM is even commissioning Discovery Studios to produce in-house ads for it during the next two months to further align the two companies' green-marketing messages. GM has plugged a "Gas-Friendly to Gas-Free" initiative for its vehicles that get more than 30 miles per gallon and its commitment to new technologies such as hybrid cars and hydrogen fuel cells.

Beyond branded entertainment, Discovery and GM have paired up on philanthropic and educational efforts, donating three Chevrolet Tahoe hybrid SUVs and a Silverado FlexFuel to the Greensburg city administration and co-creating the Discovery Education Live Green Teacher Grants.

"It's a great way for GM to educate and inform consumers about all we are doing in the area of sustainable transportation," Betsy Lazar, executive director-advertising and media operations, said in a statement. "Planet Green programs will attract consumers who also want to know what GM has to offer in terms of fuel-efficient cars and trucks, hybrids, and alternative-fuel vehicles."

Joe Abruzzese, president-ad sales for Discovery Communications, added, "Our partnership with GM is a perfect match of two brands relating to a growing population of eco-conscious viewers and consumers."

Also taking their branded-entertainment deal beyond the TV screen are Scripps' HGTV and Lowe's, which will present a new series called "Rate My Space." The series has had a unique evolution: It started as a popular web feature on Jon Steinlauf, Scripps Networks' senior VP-ad sales, said the web feature logged more than 15 million page views in its first three months, which meant it had potential as a web-to-TV series with a more organic, built-in following than a scripted web series such as "Quarterlife."

"We've seen traffic build consistently among the 'Rate My Space' pages, and the idea of the series working as an online traffic driver among the community began to make more sense," Mr. Steinlauf said.

The show, like the website, will allow homeowners to rate each other's rooms on a one-to-five-star scale, with the recipients of a one and two-star ratings granted a trip to their local Lowe's to get advice and supplies for renovating their way to a five-star space.
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