P&G Productions Launches Comedy Venture

Division Long Associated With Soaps Looks to Develop Humorous Pilot

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BATAVIA, Ohio -- If Procter & Gamble Productions were itself a soap opera, the title might be "Search for Relevance." The world's original branded-entertainment machine is looking for a guiding light in a 21st century that has little use for soap operas, and trying a little levity to lighten the situation.

P&G Productions has been searching hard for a more modern role.

PGP, a unit of the world's biggest advertiser with its roots in branded 1930s radio soap operas, last month began a nationwide contest to search for actors, comedians and improvisational performers to form a new comedy troupe called "The Procter & Gamble Productions Players."

They'll perform live in September at the New York Television Festival and record a one-hour "TV pilot" that will be showcased to TV networks as well as be available for viewing online on MSN Video.

Searching for a modern role
It's clear PGP, which produces the soap operas "The Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns," as well as the "People's Choice Awards" for CBS, has been searching hard for a more modern role.

"The PGP Comedy Hour is, first and foremost, an effort ... to create original and exciting online content," a P&G spokeswoman said in a statement. "The nature of the festival, however, may provide opportunities for the PGP Comedy Hour to be considered for broadcast or cable distribution, and we are open to that discussion.

"We believe the PGP Comedy Hour is an excellent addition to our production portfolio because it takes full advantage of the current trend toward user-generated content, while also updating the idea of sponsored comedy hours of past decades," she said. "Most important, it has the benefit of being genuinely entertaining and living where the consumer is."

The comedy venture follows PGP's launch in January of Capessa, its first venture into consumer-generated content in conjunction with digital agency Zizo Group. Capessa is an online community where women share inspirational stories in short videos, hosted in the Yahoo Health portal. P&G hasn't disclosed traffic figures, and Alexa.com data for Capessa.com shows minimal traffic.

PGP also launched a new website for the "People's Choice Awards," PCAVote.com, which topped out around 200,000 visitors daily in January, in the ballpark with traffic peaks for sites for the Emmys and Grammys, though it's trounced by the Academy Awards site, Oscar.com, which had about 20 times more traffic, according to Alexa data.

Entertainment enthusiasts

With Capessa, women can share inspirational stories in short videos, hosted in the Yahoo Health portal.
"Capessa allows women to connect with and learn from each other, and provides relevant information that connects to their specific interests and their lives," the P&G spokeswoman said. "The People's Choice Awards" invented the proposition of viewers influencing the outcome of a television show long before the current slate of unscripted programs took on this role, she said, adding: "PGP intends to revitalize 'People's Choice' and build a year-round community of entertainment enthusiasts with real influence in the business of entertainment."

All three ventures come since PGP hired two new directors for its New York production arm to help it expand into new content and media. Amy Handelsman, previously creative director at the Showtime Development Project at the Mark Taper Forum, who has produced films for ABC, Tri-Star, PBS, CBS, Showtime and HBO, joined the P&G production unit as director, writer and creative-development staffer. Diane Gauld, previously assistant VP-global marketing for L'Oreal USA's fine fragrance division, including the Ralph Lauren brand, became PGP's marketing director.

But for now, the soaps remain PGP's primary business, though not a particularly robust one as more women work outside the home, and even women left in the daytime audience have turned increasingly to talks shows and other cable options over the years. P&G's soaps have generally ranked in the bottom half of the nine network soap operas in recent years in Nielsen ratings, with "As the World Turns" and "Guiding Light" ranking sixth and eighth, respectively, for the week of June 18, with ratings of 2.1 and 1.9.

Sale and spinoff rumors
PGP has been the subject of recurrent sale or spinoff rumors for years, but a sale never materialized. Realistically, if anyone had come to P&G with an attractive offer, the company probably would have taken it, said former P&G VP-Media Rich Wilson, who left the company in 2002.

The long-term decline of soap-opera ratings and the relatively high cost of producing soaps, compared to such alternative formats as daytime talk shows, are among factors that give PGP limited value to an outside buyer, he said.

"Although mindful of the challenges of the current marketplace, PGP remains confident about the future [of its soaps]," the P&G spokeswoman said. "After more than 70 years in this business, we know the significance of the devotion of generation after generation of fans."

PGP says it intends to revitalize the 'People's Choice Awards' and build a year-round community of entertainment enthusiasts.

It's also unlikely that another buyer would have the same potentially advantageous relationship -- or leverage -- that P&G has with CBS, as a content supplier that also happens to be the network's biggest media customer.

Mr. Wilson believes that as long as PGP continues to meet the same performance thresholds for growth and profitability as other P&G businesses, there's no pressure to sell it. It's a stand-alone operation that requires little management oversight from headquarters, he said.

Strategic advantage?
Strategically, Mr. Wilson said it's not clear that having an in-house production unit gives P&G advantages that couldn't be achieved with outside partners. Nor does PGP handle any of P&G's sprawling commercial-production business, which was managed by a separate unit that ultimately was spun off from the company in 2001 and later morphed into the direct-response advertising agency Red, Cincinnati.

While in decades past, P&G held large blocks of media time in PGP soaps that its brands were largely forced to buy, the company moved away from that practice more than a decade ago, Mr. Wilson said. While he believes P&G brands still get preferential rates on PGP soaps, they're now wide open for all comers, including many of the company's competitors.
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