The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said it's bestowing the $2.5 million, plus an additional $1 million in promotion and ad support, on NBC to produce a 2-hour prime-time special examining U.S. healthcare.
The media buy is more akin to public TV underwriting than an actual ad purchase because the foundation will run no commercials and have no editorial involvement.
Other than four local spots sold by NBC stations, the June 21 special will be commercial free.
The unusual sponsorship has raised some eyebrows among journalists because of the implication that the foundation's financial involvement will somehow corrupt NBC's journalistic standards.
The foundation participated in first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's healthcare task force. The charitable group, which concentrates on bettering U.S. healthcare, was created in 1972 by the son of a Johnson & Johnson founder.
But Frank Karel, VP-communications for the foundation, said it isn't advocating any position on healthcare and will have no involvement in what NBC produces.
"Their profession is to convey complete information to the American public about very complicated issues in public affairs," Mr. Karel said. "And we're confident that they have the expertise to do the job."
But ad industry professionals wondered what the foundation is actually getting for its media investment.
NBC will mention the foundation's involvement "probably at the beginning and the end of the program," said Bill Wheatley, VP-news at NBC News. "We will make it also clear that NBC News retained full editorial control."
Other than that association, the benefit is unclear. Mr. Wheatley said NBC was planning on producing such a special on its own but had planned only 1 hour.
So the foundation appears to be paying $3.5 million to gain an extra hour of prime-time public affairs programming about healthcare on NBC.
In terms of a conventional media buy, agency executives said it's not a very good deal.
"I can't figure out what they're getting for it," said Dan Rank, senior VP-director of national broadcast at DDB Needham Worldwide, New York.
Mr. Rank noted the 2-hour program will air on a Tuesday night against ABC's powerhouse lineup of "Roseanne," "Coach" and "NYPD Blue" and CBS' Tuesday movie.
As a result, he estimated the program would attract significantly less than the 10.7 rating NBC's "Dateline NBC" averages on Tuesday nights.
"It will probably do about a 5 rating. For $2.5 million, that's a cost of $531 per thousand" households, Mr. Rank said, noting that prime-time CPMs typically average less than $10.
The foundation's Mr. Karel said it hasn't decided on an ad agency for the promotion and advertising support for the NBC special and it may work directly with the network on that.
However, Jon Mandel, senior VP-director of national broadcast at Grey Advertising, handled the foundation's media buy, serving as an independent consultant.
Mr. Mandel noted that if you look at the 120-minute special as individual commercial units, it would represent 240 :30s, making it "the lowest CPM ever paid," about $2.21 per thousand.
Emily DeNitto contributed to this story.