In a new sort of cooking program whipped up by Scripps Networks, marketers including Clorox, Kellogg and Sara Lee get to tell you what ingredients you ought to use -- theirs, of course -- in the recipes shown on screen.
It's a departure for Scripps. For years, all instructional programming on its stable of cable networks -- think Food Network, HGTV and DIY, among others -- has been more or less free of paid product placement, the theory being that viewers want unbiased information about the best way to prepare food or renovate a home that isn't usurped by the goods of any specific marketer. But Scripps has altered that policy to air a program called "From the Kitchens Of" on its fledgling Cooking network, which launched in 2010.
On the program, an unusual collaboration between ad-sales and content units, viewers get to see the preparation of recipes designed by the makers of some of the nation's most-popular consumer staples, including Jimmy Dean sausage, Hidden Valley Ranch dressing and Rice Krispies cereal. In one episode from the first season, for example, viewers journeyed to Pillsbury headquarters in Minneapolis for a behind-the-scenes tour and discovered how the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest was started about 60 years ago. On the recipe list? Zesty lime fish tacos, chicken fajita crescent braid, crescent pizza pockets, mini ice-cream cookie cups, double-delight peanut butter and cinnamon-french-toast bake.
Scripps has no desire to hide the fact that the advertisers are pitching their products even as they throw open the doors to their internal food-test areas. Every episode of "From The Kitchens Of " tells viewers the company in the show's spotlight is also its sponsor and, indeed, each sponsor pays Scripps for half the cost of an episode's production, according to Jeff Stettin, VP-ad sales, Cooking Channel. "Test Kitchens" is not a regular part of the Cooking lineup and airs sporadically across the course of a year. Of course, the sponsor's ads run during the program.
It's no surprise that a backer of two food-focused cable networks understands that to capture ad revenue in a highly competitive world, sometimes a media outlet has to break a few eggs. Scripps' decision to alter its policy illustrates some of the challenges embryonic media operations face during a time when advertisers have a seemingly infinite number of potential perches for their money.
When the CW formed from the ashes of the old UPN and WB networks in 2006, executives knew they would have to give potential sponsors a new reason to hitch their ad dollars to an untested slate of programs. The answer: "content wraps," a concept up to then practically unheard of in the often hidebound TV business. The CW allowed a single advertiser to dominate an entire commercial break.
Scripps appears to be working along similar lines for Cooking, which launched after the company determined its Fine Living network was no longer viable. "We wanted to be able to offer advertisers something different than" Food Network, said Mr. Stettin. "We feel that with a network that was just starting out, we could take a little bit more risk."
The Cooking Channel has not, so far, proved as powerful at luring ad dollars as some of its corporate brethren. In the first half of 2011, it secured about $12.3 million in ad revenue, according to Kantar Media. Food Network, meanwhile, snared about $283.2 million, Kantar said, while HGTV took in slightly more than $300.4 million.
"Kitchens" isn't limited to food. Sears' Kenmore has for the past several months been running a test kitchen that consumers can visit to see product demonstrations, and used the Cooking show to spotlight that effort as well as appliances coming to market, said Samuel Monnie, director-marketing for Kenmore.
In the past, Mr. Stettin said, Scripps underscored the importance of keeping instructional programs "as pure as possible. You never want to favor one advertiser over another. There are certain recipes where only one product will do, but it has just been our policy to keep it clean."
Scripps still maintains stringent oversight over the content of "Kitchens," often engaging in some back-and-forth with the sponsors about certain elements of the program. "We're very strict about what recipes we use. We're using their recipe, but we choose them and the reason for that is we want this to be an interesting show. Very often, they want to give us really simple recipes that would be too simple for our audience," said Mr. Stettin. Discussion sometimes rises over whether a sponsor's chef has what it takes to be on TV.
With a 10-episode first season already under its belt, Cooking is armed with research that suggests viewers aren't turned off by the sponsored recipes. After watching an episode of the show, viewers are 94% more likely to purchase products featured in "Kitchens," said Mr. Stettin, and 73% more likely to make the recipes featured in an episode. All sponsors from the first season have signed up for the second, which is slated to comprise about 13 episodes.
And viewers haven't turn up their noses. "Despite knowing it was advertising, more people viewed it as a show as opposed to any sort of sponsored vehicle," Mr. Stettin said. "They knew what it was, but they still saw it as helpful, realistic information."