Entertainment Marketers 2008

Entertainment Marketers 2008: Michael Benson and Marla Provencio

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When Michael Benson and Marla Provencio first laid their eyes on a U.K. version of "Dancing With the Stars" in the summer of 2005, they weren't sure what to think. "It was kind of like 'Lawrence Welk meets the Olympics in the '70s,'" says Mr. Benson, exec VP-marketing, advertising and promotion for ABC Entertainment, adding, "Where we started and where we are now are two radically different places."
Selected for:
'Dancing With the Stars'
  • 25 million dance fans: Who knew? ABC taps into a neglected area
  • Sponsored segments play with advertisers
  • Emotional Link brings back viewers

When "DWTS," as the show has come to be known internally at ABC, first arrived on these shores, it was a summer program. All Mr. Benson and Ms. Provencio, exec VP-marketing, ABC Entertainment, had to go on was a British episode of the show.

The situation was unlike what Mr. Benson and Ms. Provencio typically face. "It's a very different challenge when you've got a first pilot of a show, whether it's 'Desperate Housewives' or 'Lost' or 'Grey's Anatomy' or some other show you can sit down and study and analyze," Mr. Benson says. "While we had a show from the U.K., we were also told this was going to be different, so we had to start with it, but not really. Just because it works in the U.K. doesn't mean it's going to work here, so it was really up to us to figure out what the brand was."

Something must have clicked. Dismissed early on as an "American Idol" knockoff, "Dancing With the Stars" has become a phenomenon on ABC, generating ratings momentum from the reality side of the equation. The show reached about 24.9 million viewers on a live-plus-same-day basis last Nov. 27, according to Nielsen.

"DWTS" has become important to the network on two other fronts: as a place to integrate marketers and as a tool to help launch other programs.

Since its debut, "DWTS" has featured Unilever's Slim-Fast, Sony Corp., Macy's and AT&T, the last two in the 2007-08 season. The telecom giant offered its customers who watch "DWTS" the chance to vote for their favorite couples via text messaging. After each telecast of "DWTS," those customers were able to see unaired video footage from the show on their phones. Macy's sponsored a dance-performance segment in five "DWTS" episodes. Titled "Stars of Dance Presented by Macy's," the segments focused on top choreographers and performers from different styles, such as tap-dancer Savion Glover.

ABC has also used "DWTS" to drive audiences to lesser-known programs. This past season, the show helped goose ratings for "Samantha Who," which launched last fall in a half-hour time slot after each week's 90-minute dance-a-thon.

While the initial U.K. episode could have been viewed as "cheesy," Ms. Provencio says she saw the potential for something else. "It's so sophisticated and sexy. We wanted to bring in a younger audience by really amping up the heat," she says. In addition to promoting the show on ABC (of course) with spots that center on different dancers and types of music, the pair created guerrilla marketing that included people dressed as giant stars.

"There's an emotional connection, people having a good time," Ms. Provencio says. "Once you've connected with the audience, they become invested in the full season."
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