Is ABC's 'Stars' the Next 'Idol'?

Broad Sponsorships by AT&T, Macy's Reinforce Power of Reality Shows

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When it makes its debut tonight, ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" will have loads of familiar elements, including dancing celebrities and hosts Tom Bergeron and Samantha Harris. But it also will boast two new sponsors, one of which is more than a tad reminiscent of a similar reality/game show hybrid found on Fox. The Walt Disney network has brought AT&T and Macy's onboard its hit show in broad sponsorships similar to those displayed on "American Idol."
Tony Dovolani, Jane Seymour and AT&T will appear on 'Dancing with the Stars' this season.
Tony Dovolani, Jane Seymour and AT&T will appear on 'Dancing with the Stars' this season. Credit: Craig Sjodin

The deal is just the latest sign that advertisers are placing increased emphasis on programs in which they can freely display their wares without disrupting carefully plotted scripts. The mass appeal of contests such as "Stars" and "Idol," with their durable plotlines, only adds to their attraction. Advertisers who want to reach wide audiences "are going to be involved with these shows," said David Garver, executive director-business development and wireless sponsorships for AT&T Mobility. "Ten years ago, you wouldn't see anything like this."

Between the steps
ABC will weave both Macy's and AT&T in amidst the choreography and celebrity smiles, the first time the network has put more than one advertiser into the program in such a fashion (Unilever's Slim-Fast and Sony Corp. have been part of "Stars" in the past).

Cheap to produce but capable of generating high ratings, reality-based game shows are becoming a must-have for many major broadcast networks. "American Idol" brings in profits of about $200 million for Fox, estimates Michael Nathanson, a media analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. The production has become famous for its sponsorships from Ford, Coca-Cola and AT&T, who do everything from sponsoring cellphone voting (AT&T) to placing red cups on the judges' desks (Coke). "Everyone is trying to do a variation on them. Everyone wants to find the next 'Idol,'" Mr. Nathanson said.

ABC executives say "Idol" wasn't necessarily the first thing on their minds and that they incorporated AT&T into "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" before the Fox juggernaut had broken wide open. That said, they are looking carefully to bolster "Stars" with marketing strategy. "We are not throwing the doors open and saying we want more sponsored segments, but we are all hopeful that the ratings performance is going to continue to grow and these sort of marketing partnerships are going to contribute to that," said John Sadler, ABC's senior VP-integrated marketing and promotions.

Clips on phones
AT&T will offer "Stars" viewers who are AT&T Wireless customers the chance to vote for their favorite couples via text messaging. After each telecast of "Stars," those customers will be able to see unaired video footage from the show on their phones. AT&T also expects its new Video Share service, which lets users share live video over their wireless devices, to be integrated into an episode of the program.

For its part, Macy's will sponsor a dance-performance segment in five "Dancing With the Stars" results shows. Titled "Stars of Dance Presented by Macy's," the segments will focus on top choreographers and performers from different styles of dance, such as tap-dancer Savion Glover. Macy's recently launched a celebrity-focused ad campaign featuring notables including Jessica Simpson, Martha Stewart and Usher. Consumers ought to be able to connect the "Stars" segment both to Macy's and its current campaign, said Dawn Bullen, Macy's senior VP-media, in a statement.

One reason for the fascination with the reality game shows is that they tend to play out the same way, episode after episode. "Week in and week out, you know what a reality show is going to look like," said Fred Dubin, managing partner-director of entertainment marketing and promotions at Mediaedge:cia, the WPP Group media-buying firm that works for both Macy's and AT&T. "In a scripted show, while the characters are the same and there is the same basic storyline, when special episodes are going to run, that may change, and you don't have that kind of volatility" in the reality genre.

At ABC, ad executives will consider other types of marketing pacts for "Stars" but will have to be selective. "We get a lot of interest in this show, but only so many of them are fit for the TV experience," said John Caruso, ABC's senior VP-TV network sales.
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