LOS ANGELES -- Can a hit TV show find commercial success without the commercials? AMC is betting that "Mad Men" can -- at least for one night, and possibly more.
For the season finale, Rainbow Media's AMC will create a tailored opening that credits DirecTV as the sole sponsor for the commercial-free episode. Immediately following, a mini-documentary goes inside the season's wrap party, again featuring DirecTV as sole sponsor of the event.
It might seem to be counterintuitive for a hit drama set in the go-go world of an early 1960s Madison Avenue advertising firm to ditch its ads, especially since the show inked a noted product-placement deal with Jack Daniels whiskey earlier this summer. But its creator, producers and financiers all say it's their fervent hope that "Mad Men" will eventually go entirely commercial-free. And for a variety of reasons owing to audience demographics and viewing habits, its creator's inclinations and the mess that is the Nielsen ratings, they might just be right.
For one thing, "Mad Men" hasn't turned into the brand integration bonanza many expected it might, thanks largely to the restrained sensibilities of its creator, Matthew Weiner. "I think people hate product placement," he said, adding, "I find it to be an insulting thing to see advertising in the middle of the shows. I can see it, I can smell it and it makes me angry. But to do a show about an advertising agency without products, or to do a show that's about real life where you don't see the products -- where people are pouring milk out of a plain-wrapped package -- that's even more embarrassing. We're creating a texture of real life."
The texture of real life, of course, is exactly what can make many advertisers queasy, as the original producers of the show's pilot, commercial house @Radical Media, found out the hard way.
Jon Kamen, @Radical CEO, admits that despite his background and relationships with brands, the adult themes in "Mad Men" initially proved too disconcerting for advertisers to consider wholly sponsoring the series. "A brand wants to sponsor a show and not face family-values attacks," said Mr. Kamen. "I was hoping to create a new [commercial-free] format. But I lost that battle when I couldn't sell a single sponsor on it, and so we lost control of the show."
With its unflinching look beneath the veneer of 1960s politesse, it's easy to see why brands such as Jack Daniels' parent Brown-Forman, which inked a product-placement deal with "Mad Men," were cautious.
No sex after drinking
"They have this whole list of how it [Jack Daniels] can be used," said Mr. Weiner. "They don't want to see people driving. They don't want to see people hitting each other. They don't want to see people fighting. They do not want to see people having sex immediately after drinking. You're sort of like, 'What is the purpose of Jack Daniels if there's no sex after it and there's no fighting after it?'
"I jokingly said to AMC, 'Would they mind if it was being used to sterilize instruments in an underground abortion?'"
Brown Forman, which markets Jack Daniels, did not respond to a request for comment about its restrictions on the program by deadline. But earlier, spokesman Phil Lynch said the topic of whether Jack Daniels will return for a second season "hadn't come up yet." Lisa Rogen, director-corporate communications at Rainbow Media, said to read "nothing ominous" into that statement, given that "Mad Men" was greenlighted for a second season only last week, and has not yet approached potential advertisers.
Lacking a presenting sponsor, Lionsgate stepped in to finance the AMC period drama, which costs a hefty $500,000 an episode. It soon discovered that "Mad Men's" audience was appealing to advertisers, but slippery to measure.
And that might be another excellent reason to take "Mad Men" commercial-free: An unusually high percentage of its audience is well-heeled, middle-aged and watching the series on a TiVo or similar digital video recorders. According to Nielsen Media Research, every week somewhere between 20% and 30% of "Mad Men's" average audience comes from folks who watch the show on a DVR -- and then, often as late as a week after its original broadcast. The show has one of the highest DVR audiences on TV, according to Nielsen spokesman Gary Holmes.
"Mad Men" debuted July 19 to 1.65 million viewers, and at first glance appears to have had some difficulty maintaining that audience. Or has it?
Wealthy are watching
On Sept. 13, for example, the show drew 841,000 live viewers. But that audience swells to more than 1 million when the Nielsen's live-plus-seven rating (which adds in viewers who watch the episode in playback within seven days of its original broadcast) is included. And as AMC points out, almost a third of the show's target audience, adults 25-54, have household incomes of more than $100,000.
So the question becomes, are those well-heeled viewers watching "Mad Men's" ads?
Aaron Cohen, exec VP-media negotiations officer for the largest independent media buyer in the nation, Horizon, is not convinced they are. He insists that the added audience gained by measuring DVR viewers isn't meaningful to advertisers, because such audiences blast through ads, and that some ads are time-sensitive.
But regardless of whether they fast-forward with abandon, he said that single-sponsor, commercial-free TV isn't something to shrug off, because it can't be blasted with a remote. "There are times when it has real value," Mr. Cohen said. "But if you're not absolutely convinced that your sponsorship will turn viewers into purchasers, then what the hell are you making the investment for?"
AMC's general manager, Charlie Collier, said his network is particularly open to single-sponsor arrangements such as DirecTV's: "We're trying to do cinematic television, shows that can stand side-by-side with the best movies on TV" and that a commercial-free "Mad Men" certainly qualifies as more cinematic.
Ford shows interest
Meanwhile, Kevin Beggs, president-production and programming for Lionsgate Television, which finances "Mad Men," said finding more presenting sponsors for the second season of "Mad Men" is high on his agenda. He said he has already fielded unsolicited calls expressing interest in sponsoring "Mad Men" from Ford Motor Co. and a large soft-drink marketer he declined to identify. (A spokeswoman from Ford declined to comment on the talks.)
"The older model that went away -- you know, 'Texaco Star' and 'Kraft Mystery Theater' -- may find its way back into people's televisions," said Mr. Beggs. He added: "Given the landscape, TV is very likely to return to that single-sponsor model. I expect going into this season that the conversations will be much easier, because now I'm getting the calls, and I'm always the guy stalking everybody else."