No :30s Here, Just Sponsorship Galore

Road to the Upfront: Sundance Channel in Selling Mode

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The Player: Sundance Channel's Upfront Press Preview
The Date: April 2, 2008
The Venue: 11 Madison Park, New York
Key Execs: Larry Aidem, president-CEO, Sundance Channel; Laura Michalchyshyn, exec VP-general manager, programming and creative affairs; Kirk Iwanowski, exec VP-marketing, sponsorship and branded entertainment; Kim Gabelmann, VP-branded entertainment and sponsorship; Christopher Barry, senior VP-digital media and business strategy.
The Food: A pre-selected breakfast menu offering organic egg frittata, pecan praline pancakes and a mushroom-gruyere omelet.
The Drinks: It was a breakfast presentation, after all, so coffee, no cocktails.
The Swag: A Sigg water canteen and a "foldable loudspeaker" made out of recyclable paper seemed appropriate for the network that has made the eco-conscious series "The Green" a huge part of its programming lineup and company-wide strategy.
'The Green,' a programming block sponsored by Lexus and Citi Smith Barney, is a recent example of Sundance aiming to weave brands into its shows from the early phases.
'The Green,' a programming block sponsored by Lexus and Citi Smith Barney, is a recent example of Sundance aiming to weave brands into its shows from the early phases.

The Pitch: The Sundance Channel will be selling a multitude of new programming and branded-entertainment opportunities in this year's upfront, but also for sale is the network itself. The channel is on the block for an estimated price tag of $400 million, putting in play an ownership that is currently shared by founder Robert Redford with NBC Universal and CBS.

At a press preview of its upfront presentation in New York, Sundance Channel President-CEO Larry Aidem could not address the reports specifically, only to mention that the network is "used to changes in ownership," having had four different parent companies over the years. He added that "mommy and daddy" at CBS and NBC have been very supportive in their current roles. "Mommy being Jeff Zucker and Daddy being Les Moonves, of course," Mr. Aidem joked.

Until Sundance finds new parents, the channel is taking an aggressive new programming slate to the ad community, with an abundance of sponsorship opportunities. Topping the slate is a new talk show, "Spectacle: Elvis Costello With..." hosted by the famous musician and executive-produced by Elton John. The 13-episode series will feature Mr. Costello chatting with famous names in music, politics and movies, and will premiere Dec. 3.

Other shows on the 2009 development slate include "Eco-Trip: The Real Cost of Living," "Johnny Weir: Black Swan Rising" and "Anthropologie," a docu-series following the main buyer for the titular retailer as he tours the world in search of new and obscure finds.

Announcing the new shows early is elemental to Sundance's sponsorship-integration strategy, as the network aims to weave brands into its shows from the early phases. Recent examples include "Iconoclasts," co-produced with Grey Goose Entertainment, and "The Green," a programming block sponsored by Lexus and Citi Smith Barney. Kirk Iwanowski, Sundance's exec VP-marketing, sponsorship and branded entertainment, said the network spends just as much time curating its shows' brands so that "the content speaks to brands' marketing objectives."

The Ratings Game: A former premium cable channel until switching to a branded entertainment ad model in 2007, Sundance is not currently Nielsen rated. And since Sundance isn't beholden to Nielsen ratings, "We can really deliver the engagement metrics advertisers are looking for," Mr. Iwanowski said. The network partnered with the Online Testing Exchange for its first engagement study this year, which found the Sundance viewer to be more likely to spend money on the network's core marketing categories than on any of its competitors.

Mr. Iwanowski sees Sundance's niche, big-spending audience as an advantage in a cable marketplace that continues to redefine the "upscale" viewer. "We're never going to be the mass vehicle. Because our audience over-indexes in all these categories, they can afford to buy the best. That's not a core criteria for us, but if a brand is forward-thinking we'll work with them."

The Digital Play: Since Sundance is currently only available in 30 million homes, digital distribution has become a major priority for the network. In addition to its main site, SundanceChannel.com, the network also has syndication partnerships with YouTube, Hulu, Verizon V-Cast, Universal HD, Virgin America and Helio.
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