NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As the upfront market enters its third week at a standstill, some networks are writing early deals based on branded entertainment. Scripps Interactive's Food Network just completed its first three deals of the upfront season, all for the upcoming second season of "The Next Iron Chef," premiering Oct. 4. American Airlines, Kikkoman and Art Institutes have all signed on as sponsors for the show, currently filming in Japan.
Karen Grinthal, Food Network's exec VP-ad sales, said although the network sells all year long, "Iron Chef" needed early commitments from sponsors to secure integrations in time for filming. That "Next Iron Chef" was Food Network's highest-rated fourth-quarter show during its first season, in 2007, also helped.
"In a time when everybody's afraid to make a move, good ideas sell," said Ms. Grinthal, adding that Food Network hasn't even reached the "stare-down" phase that broadcast networks and some cable networks are in with marketers and media buyers. "We're beginning to get budgets registered. [But deals will start] certainly before 'The Next Iron Chef' goes on the air," she joked.
Food Network is riding an overall ratings high going into this year's upfront, up 16% year-over-year among adults 25 to 54, its core demo, with a more than 30% increase among upscale households, according to Nielsen data. "In a tough economy, advertisers are looking for where the audiences are engaged. And if people are engaged and have the propensity to buy, they have the discretionary income to do that," Ms. Grinthal said.
Rick Wilbins, managing director of brand and advertising at American Airlines, said "Iron Chef" also marks the first official upfront deal for American, although the airline is "in talks with other media partners. That's one of the benefits of the upfront: You can sit down with a prospective partner and talk about their assets and your interests and match them up and give yourselves some time to talk about capitalizing on that media asset," he said.
The networks have been offering more "menu-driven programming" to marketers this year, he added, "and we like that. It's a more thoughtful process, not as formulaic as it might have been in the past. But it's a much more collaborative process than ever."
"Iron Chef" qualified as a must-buy, he added, because of American Airlines longtime strategy of aligning itself with iconic brands and programming, dating back to its famous integration in "Home Alone." "We've found that we get our message across more clearly and with much more impact when we link our messaging to programming that appeals to people's passions," he said.
Mike Evans, VP-national sales manager for Kikkoman Sales USA, said in an e-mail that "Iron Chef" provided the soy-sauce maker a chance to help brand the experience of "umami," a culinary flourish that enhances the senses.
"Brands are more important than ever during times like these. It's essential to give customers a reason to buy a product, to give them a reason to trade up with you and trade down in other areas," he said. The program marks Kikkoman's first brand integration into a TV series, he added.