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Mothers & Daughers'' found a home on ABC, thanks to corporate sponsors. DOCUMENTARY ON WOMEN FINDS COMMERCIAL TV TAKER;AT&T, HALLMARK, TAMBRANDS AND KODAK TO SPONSOR AIRING ON ABC

By Published on .

When Judith Leonard, Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg were shopping around their documentary "The Story of Mothers & Daughters," the trio figured that it, like most documentaries, would go straight to Public Broadcasting Service.

Instead, they managed to sell the project to ABC, and to bring in such top-notch corporate sponsors as AT&T Corp., Eastman Kodak Co., Hallmark Cards and Tambrands.

SEVERAL SPINOFFS

Set to air next spring to coincide with Mother's Day, the documentary already has spun off such ancillary projects as a companion book by HarperCollins, a line of greeting cards by Hallmark, a Web site, a celebrity cookbook and a traveling photography exhibit. It's the type of commitment that took the producers by surprise and could form the foundation of a business model other documentaries may follow.

"When we started, we believed that this would be on PBS," Ms. Ryan said. "The sponsors never do this; the networks never do this. If somehow this documentary approach can be adopted by the people who are corporate sponsors, perhaps there can be a rebirth in network documentaries."

"The Story of Mothers & Daughters" was more than five years in the making by the Mothers & Daughers production company, and involved interviewing some 500 women. The documentary explores aspects unique to the mother/ daughter relationship, from birth through the separation that comes with adulthood to the ultimate death of the mother.

While Patricia Richardson of ABC's "Home Improvement" will host the special with a brief stand-up opening, "The Story of Mothers & Daughters" is otherwise devoid of celebrity involvement.

That it was produced by an independent company rather than ABC makes the documentary's appearance on network TV all the more unusual.

TARGETING WOMEN

ABC was attracted to the project because it spoke to a large segment of the network's audience: women, said Marilyn Wilson, senior VP of specials and late-night programming at the network.

"We don't do much in the way of documentaries, but this is one that has such emotion, such conflict and such reward that we decided to take a chance on it," Ms. Wilson said.

Of course, having four sponsors already interested in the show didn't hurt matters either.

BRINGING THEM TOGETHER

But getting sponsors and network together wasn't an easy task. While many companies expressed an interest, nobody wanted to be the first to sign on. And ABC, was reluctant to make a commitment until the sponsors committed. So the sponsors and their agencies hesitated until ABC was a firm go.

Finally in the spring of 1995, in desperation, Ms. Leonard asked ad agency representatives from the interested sponsors to meet her in the lobby of ABC's New York headquarters, then headed there on a plane. At the meeting were executives from Tambrands' agency, BBDO; Kodak's shop, J. Walter Thompson USA; and AT&T's then-agency N.W. Ayer & Partners, though Young &*Rubicam now handles.

"I walked into the lobby and I had no idea what any of these guys looked like," Ms. Leonard said. But sure enough, there they were, and after an intensive period of negotiations in the ABC offices, things began to gel.

Production financing in place, the documentary proceeded on schedule. And soon thereafter, ancillary projects began to sprout. Hallmark stepped forward with a line of "The Story of Mothers & Daughters" greeting cards, as well as related merchandise, such as journals, boxed notes and pillows.

"More than anything, Hallmark saw that this documentary had emotional appeal," she said. "It's the same emotional appeal that Hallmark products have, and that made it a perfect fit."

A companion cookbook, "Treasures From Our Mothers' Kitch-ens," is in the works, with contributors being solicited from celebrities. And HarperCollins, will come out with a companion book on the documentary as well.

Portions of the book will be serialized in Woman's Day, with Hachette Filipacchi Magazines including a "Story of Mothers & Daughters" section on its site on America Online, as well as a second site on the World Wide Web.

The online sites, which roll out starting in November, will offer advice columns and shared anecdotes, and provide behind-the-scenes glimpses of the documentary.

SPONSORS FOR WEB SITE

"Our goal is to create an enticing and appealing site," said Michael Leonard, son of Judith Leonard and a producer with Wireless Multimedia. Both sites will offer paid sponsorships and continue well beyond the airing of the documentary, he said.

Wireless is developing a companion CD-ROM, and the documentary producers are working on a sound track.

While the licensing fees from these ancillary projects bring in revenue to the producers, the amount is relatively small, Ms. Leonard said. A portion of proceeds from the celebrity cookbook, for example, will go to charity.

The real advantage, she said: the added promotional exposure they give to the documentary.M

Mr. Spring is Los Angeles bureau chief for Electronic Media.

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