Two Niche Cable Channels Profitably Combine Commerce and Content

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Two niche cable networks are finding marketing bucks in one of advertising’s hottest trends: turning the advertiser into content producer.

In the past two years Independent Film Channel has doubled its advertising take to $10 million by blurring the line between commercial spots and short, subtly branded films for Target, Heineken and Acura.
A scene from one of IFC's Heineken mini-movies.
Play the mini-movie.

Earlier this year, Sundance Channel helped Bacardi’s Grey Goose launch Grey Goose Entertainment, a production company whose first co-production with Sundance is the November-premiering Iconoclasts.

For the two networks -- Sundance, a premium channel along the lines of Showtime or HBO, and IFC, a basic cabler in 35 million homes -- the key is leveraging their expertise and contacts in TV and film production for marketers whose main business is pushing product.

Brands in movie promos

Rainbow Media’s IFC, for example, draws on its connections in the independent film industry to integrate brands into short-form film -- like promos for much less than it might cost a marketer to create a mini film on its own or through an agency. It doesn’t accept 30-second commercials but instead integrates sponsors into movie promos based on the supposition that trailers are the ads consumers are most interested in seeing.

“We’re trying to create an environment between shows and movies that’s so useful it’s TiVo-proof,” said Evan Shapiro, IFC’s executive vice president and general manager, citing data that his network's audience boasts the second highest rate of DVR ownership. And because the network doesn’t edit for content -- it’s tagline “uncut” means not only that it doesn’t interrupt movies with ads but also that it doesn’t censor them -- “some advertisers aren’t going to work with us right off the bat,” said Alan Klein, vice president of the network’s newly formed integrated partnerships division.

The network ventured into the area four years ago through a sponsorship deal with Volkswagen that tied the automaker into an IFC promo. Since then, it has steadily grown its marketer relationships -- most of the yearlong deals hover in the low seven figures -- making it perhaps the most ad-supported, non-commercial network on TV.

Heineken, Target, Acura

Heineken is the sole sponsor on Friday nights, when IFC kicks off an original programming block with a promo spot declaring Heineken “the official beer of Friday nights.” Target sponsors IFC’s Monday night movie lineup, which the network has coined “Cinema Red,” after Target’s DVD/e-commerce site of the same name (cinemared.target.com). Rockstar Games (Grand Theft Auto) sponsors promos that promote upcoming IFC films with video-game animation woven into the movie clips. And Acura sponsors the show At the IFC Center with a 60-second film-like promo featuring the show’s host, Alison Bailes.

Most of the integration is subtle, to be sure. Product glamour shots are eschewed in favor of a glimpse of the Acura medallion as Ms. Bailes rides her bike down the street or green Heineken bottle in the background as a couple makes out in a bar bathroom.

Marketers use the network to reach its young, male demo as well as filmmakers who might choose to integrate a brand into an upcoming production. They’re free to repurpose the spots for other off-channel use, Mr. Shapiro said, and IFC handles all the creative production.

Heineken was introduced to IFC via independent film director Jon Favreau, who used the beer marketer in a scene in his 2001 movie Made. Heineken had been targeting independent film fans at the Sundance and Telluride film festivals and, explained Pattie Falch, promotions and sponsorships manager for the beer marketer, in the world of indie film, IFC and Heineken boast the same brand image. Heineken, in fact, now airs its 60-second IFC spots at film festivals.

'We don't want it overt'

“When IFC’s creating these mini movies, these interstitials, we want them to be reflective of their channel but with Heineken integrated into it,” she said. “You don’t want to be overt. The people who are watching don’t want anything in their face.”

Sundance Channel’s marketer support is less obvious, thanks to its NPR-like non-commercial pedigree. You won’t find, for example, a product placement within a show or even a network promo. Sundance helped Grey Goose establish its entertainment division and while the marketer may be a co-production partner of Iconoclasts, the subjects featured in the interview-style show won’t be sipping on vodka martinis.

“We produce content and we’re also savvy marketers,” said Kirk Iwanowski, senior vice president of marketing for Sundance Channel, which is jointly owned by Viacom, NBC Universal and Robert Redford. “[Grey Goose] is also an extremely savvy marketer, especially with respect to who they speak to, their target audience. [Iconoclasts] is a way of combining those strengths and doing so in a way that cuts through the noise.”

Each episode features someone notable from a particular field interviewing an esteemed subject from another field -- for example, chef Mario Batali on musician Michael Stipe, actor Samuel L. Jackson on basketball player Bill Russell and producer Brian Grazer on Viacom Chairman-CEO Sumner Redstone.

Grey Goose in show's marketing materials

Grey Goose is getting prime billing on all of the show’s marketing materials and will have production credits when the show airs.

The six-episode series, produced by branded entertainment shop Embassy Row, is currently getting a major marketing push, including a prominent insert in this month’s Vanity Fair, part of an arrangement with media partner Conde Nast.

While Iconoclasts is Grey Goose Entertainment’s only show in production at the moment, the division hopes to produce other content in the future; Sundance Channel, meanwhile, expects to work on similar future projects with Grey Goose Entertainment as well as other marketers.

“These are strategic partnerships on the production or marketing side,” Mr. Iwanowski said. “This is not a value add in response to a 30-second buy.”
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