TBS settles for less with 'Sex' sponsors

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turner broadcasting has secured two advertisers to go the distance with its pre-syndication ad-supported run of "Sex and the City," which airs on June 15.

The twin deals are 15-month long media buy commitments that are worth approximately $5 million apiece, and could be called "Mr. Small" deals, as they come up far short of the "Mr. Big" sponsorships that the Turner sales team originally tried to hawk. Named after a character in the show, the Mr. Big deals included a $50 million sponsorship for one major advertiser and $30 million deals for three smaller sponsors. The network aggressively attempted to sell the Mr. Big's after announcing it would air the off-HBO program late last year.

"We were looking at Mr. Big but it was way too much money," said a media buyer who had been approached by Turner. "The imaging was great and the marketing was fantastic, the opportunity was good too, but it was too rich for our blood."

Executives at Turner would not reveal the identity of the advertisers in the current "Mr. Small" deals, but media buyers indicated that the deals are with a cellular phone brand and a cosmetics or packaged-goods advertiser. The network is also negotiating a third long-term deal with an automaker, said executives with knowledge of the situation. The network would not confirm this.

going big

"We originally went out big," said David Levy, president-entertainment sales and marketing, Turner Broadcasting. "I said, `Let's go out and sell this sitcom for 15 months, crossing two years and two upfronts.' Everyone said you can't do that, it's too early. But I said let's try it. We will still get a couple of advertisers that will cross the 15-month buy. And we're also selling the scatter, which is selling well."

TBS is no longer pursuing the "Mr. Big" packages, which were basically "gargantuan" integrated marketing propositions, according to one media buyer, that included radio and online components, magazine advertising pages, short film vignettes created by the network for advertisers and, of course, the long-term media buys.

TBS is currently rebranding itself as a comedy network, using the new tagline "Very funny," and the new identity was cemented by the "Sex and the City" run, according to Mr. Levy. "We were already thinking about taking the network to this different level. We had teed up lots of comedy programming like `Everybody Loves Raymond,' `King of Queens,' `Friends' and `Seinfeld.' But when `Sex and the City' did become available, we said this fits the rebranding."

The network debated changing its name too, but decided to leave well enough alone. "We really just dropped `Superstation,"' Mr. Levy said, "but the logo is going to be different, the style will be different."

Mr. Levy calls "Sex" a "virtual original program" on TBS, because it will be reaching a new audience that never saw the program on HBO. He also could claim the show is a virtual original in the sense that TBS is airing an altered version of the show, with new scenes replacing sex scenes deemed advertiser unfriendly, and also with scenes that make it easier to slide into commercials. "The show on HBO was produced as half-hour episodes with no commercials," Mr. Levy said. "Now you put in commercial time, so it has to be written in a way that makes the breaks feel natural. And because you are not showing the explicit scenes, you have to have better writing. So the writing now is even better, and funnier."

The network sent sample tapes of the "clean" version of the show to advertisers. "Even though the show is `Sex and the City,' it transcends the sex," said Shari Anne Brill, VP-director of programming at Aegis Group's Carat. "It's really about these women. ... The solidarity of their friendship is always a constant. That's what needs to be preserved in the show rather than the other element."

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