The new company, as yet unnamed, will be led by Robert Riesenberg, currently exec VP-broadcast and programming at Universal McCann, McCann's media unit.
Inspired by Procter & Gamble Co.'s and Hallmark Cards' shows from the salad days of three-network TV, the new unit will develop programming in partnership with advertiser clients that will bankroll and own the productions.
Mr. Riesenberg's group already has developed a project called "Flight of the Reindeer," a Christmas movie for CBS that begins production in September and is being bankrolled by Johnson & Johnson, General Motors Corp., Nestle USA. CBS has also brought in Kmart Corp. as a partner.
Separately, the unit has arranged to have Coca-Cola USA sponsor Warner Bros.' TV series "Young Americans."
"The timing is right and the opportunities are ripe for advertisers to take control of their media marketing efforts in a more pro-active way," Mr. Riesenberg said. "Advertisers need to take hold of content and call it their own so that they have a platform from which they can advertise, market, promote and shape the shows that will serve them well."
Mr. Riesenberg will report to Bill Cella, exec VP-director of broadcast and programming at Universal McCann.
Mr. Cella came to McCann in 1994 to work on Coca-Cola after a 15-year stint in sales at ABC; the new unit was his brainchild.
"Our whole concept here is to have good quality, family-oriented programming," Mr. Cella said. "It will let our advertisers stand out from the crowd of advertisers. Commercial clutter is a huge issue for us, and this is one way of standing out."
Mr. Riesenberg said McCann will package projects for outside producers and advertisers that own the programming and so will be able to offer it to the networks in exchange for advertising placement. The unit also will incorporate product placement and advertiser-friendly story lines into the shows.
"Controlling content is very advantageous," Mr. Riesenberg said. "Because if you can control content, then there is a lot that you can do both in terms of promotions around it, getting extra PR value out of it, better placement and crafting an environment that will give you more added value than you would otherwise get."
Mr. Riesenberg also said the shows' owners will be able to shop their programs in ancillary markets overseas and in video.
"I think if the advertiser is coming to the table with the funding and the promotional support, then they should be able to reap the benefits of ownership," he said. "Profits are a nice by-product, they are not the most important. The most important issue is control and the ability to use it in the way that best showcases them, best serves their marketing and media executives."
The movement of advertisers into programming is starting to gain steam, as proliferating cable networks seek more sources for new content.
One senior network advertising executive questioned the trend.
"The business is fraught with financial risks. Why would advertisers get into this business? When these networks were being sold why didn't GM buy a network? It's not their business, that's why."
But Joe Abruzzese, president advertising sales for CBS Television, disagreed. "I think it's a wonderful idea. It helps clients break though the clutter; there's more value there," he said. "There is no shortage of good ideas. The more clients get involved, the better," he said.
BRIDGING THE GAP
Grey Global Group's entertainment sponsorship unit, the Alliance, New York, has already been developing programming with Grey clients. That unit was launched in 1996 by Jarrod Moses, who is its president-CEO.
"The idea was to create an organization that could bridge the gap," Mr. Moses said, "taking projects from the world of entertainment and fund them through the world of advertising."
BBDO Worldwide, New York, was way ahead of the game, matching advertisers with productions almost 20 years ago. That is where Mr. Riesenberg got his start, as a media buyer.
"We started a programming department where we were doing mostly movies," he said. "About 15 movies in a five-year period, most of them for Campbell Soup; we also did some for Chrysler."
Mr. Riesenberg, 50, left BBDO in 1988 to start his own production company, RER Communications, which specialized in network and cable specials paid for by advertisers. After eight years in business, RER hit a flat stretch. Mr. Cella then entered the picture, offering Mr. Riesenberg a job working on the Coca-Cola business at McCann.
"I loved his background," Mr. Cella said. "I told him that programming wasn't what he would do right away, but my idea was to start a department here in three or four years' time."
Eventually, the unit hopes to develop projects independent of advertiser financing.
"We have a development fund, and we will acquire projects and then partner ourselves with the best there is in Hollywood," Mr. Riesenberg said.
McCann parent Interpublic Group of Cos. already owns Industry Entertainment, a theatrical and broadcast production company run by Keith Addis and Nick Wechsler.
"We will work with IPG companies where it makes sense," Mr. Riesenberg said.
Contributing: Wayne Friedman and David Goetzl.