'Saturday Night Live' Has a New Rival: P&G

Marketer Builds Sketch Show Around Brands, Has Eye on Prime-Time Slot

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Dave Taylor, a 33-year-old sketch comedian, was surprised to discover the party behind the production of a possible new TV program that was seeking to make use of his talents. It's not News Corp. or Walt Disney. It's P&G.
25th Century Heroes: Comedy group may work with P&G.
25th Century Heroes: Comedy group may work with P&G. Credit: George DeSota / JPI

Yes, Procter & Gamble is seriously considering using funnymen as a way to make its products -- most likely those brands aimed at men -- stand out on TV in the near future. P&G is in the early stages of producing a pilot focused on sketch comedy and the travails of the comics who devise it, which it hopes can become a prime-time reality series for broadcast or cable.

Failed TV pilots are as plentiful as grains of sand in the desert, but P&G has heard from "one or more" media outlets that could be interested in the project, said Brian Cahill, senior VP-managing director at TeleVest Daytime Programs, which manages production for Procter's programming arm, Procter & Gamble Productions. "This isn't just throwing up a bunch of spaghetti to see if something sticks," said Pat Gentile, head of P&G Productions. Even if the show isn't picked up, he said, "it doesn't mean the genre doesn't work. We'll continue to look at different ways."

Precedents
While the maker of Tide, Pampers and Crest is one of the nation's biggest spenders on TV advertising, it's also had a hand in creating the programs some of those ads support. Procter got its start making radio programs, including "Ma Perkins," a radio soap opera that ran from 1933 to 1956, and is the backer of the long-running "Guiding Light" as well as the annual People's Choice Awards. But a successful launch of what P&G is for calling "The Procter & Gamble Productions Comedy Hour" would mark the company's first independent foray into prime time -- and reality, to boot. (P&G has been a minority backer of several prime-time programs produced by others).

Procter's attempt to create its own regular series is just one of many attempts by advertisers to come up with new ways to dominate specific programs and pieces of entertainment. Marketers were once content to just run scads of commercials across multiple networks and hope the "spray and pray" strategy would work. Now they are working harder to zero in on individual properties and stand out within them.

The trick isn't easy to master. Many regular TV programs fail; so too can an advertiser's. "If it's not entertaining, then it's not going to engage, and if it doesn't, then it's a failure," said Peter Tortorici, president of WPP Group's Group M Entertainment. "Consumers aren't looking to be entertained by brands. They are looking to be entertained by characters and stories."

Other marketers have generated buzz with similar ventures. Unilever's testosterone-heavy Axe has created programs that emulate attributes related to its product. Consider "The Gamekillers," a one-hour program that appeared several times on MTV, or "Exposing the Order of the Serpentine," a half-hour show that ran on Spike. Ads from other marketers ran alongside Axe ads. But because the programs were centered on a guy's-eye view on dating and romance, an Axe-related message could get through during program time.

Snagging eyeballs
Procter's Mr. Gentile said the company is seeking ways to snare attention from viewers who have more power to avoid traditional messages. "The market is so fragmented, and because you have DVRs out there, we know that people are fast-forwarding through the commercials. If you can create something that is interesting and that resonates with the consumer, for Procter & Gamble, that's a pretty big deal."

A program dominated by a single advertiser can offer another fringe benefit: Rivals may stay away. Already, MediaVest has created such a presence for P&G's CoverGirl in "America's Next Top Model" on the CW that "for a rival, it makes no sense to be there," said Brent Poer, a MediaVest senior VP who works in its entertainment division, Connective Tissue. CoverGirl gets placement in the program as well as around commercial breaks, Mr. Poer said. P&G could use its TV show in one of two ways. It could license the program to a particular network and buy ads on it, much as it buys any other program, as it does with its soap operas. Or it could maintain its direct ownership of the program and buy all the ads on it, as it does with its People's Choice Awards. A comedy show would likely appeal to young men, so P&G brands such as Pringles, Old Spice and Gillette would be a good fit.

As a producer of consumer staples such as diapers and deodorant, P&G is known more for its devotion to marketing science than it is for humor. So, of all the potential programming genres out there, why comedy? Never fear: Serious research was going on behind the scenes. P&G executives knew they'd have stiff competition if they wanted to launch a concept similar to "American Idol" or "Dancing With the Stars," but when it came to sketch comedy, they found much of the genre was relegated to late night, not prime time. Such a show could attract fans of traditional sitcoms and "a lot of young hipsters" said Mr. Taylor, the comic, "as well as maybe the 'Saturday Night Live' and 'MadTV' crowd."
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