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Automaker Spent $16 Million for Poorly Rated Show

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NEW YORK -- Boxing reality show The Contender has wrapped up its season on NBC, but failed to deliver the knockout punch that marketers had hoped for.
Toyota spent $16 million for its 'Contender'-related promotions.

According to executives in Hollywood and on Madison Avenue, Toyota Motor Sales USA was particularly burned by the show's poor ratings performance after signing a $16 million media and product-integration deal. The deal's price tag was reported to have been the highest fee ever paid by a marketer for such a deal.

The automaker spent a reported $6 million on the rights to be the exclusive car sponsor of the show, and an additional $10 million on airtime.

No make goods
Because Toyota negotiated its tie-in directly with Mark Burnett Productions and not with NBC, the company had to take a risk on whether the show would live up to its hype. The company couldn’t get any ratings guarantees or turn to the network for a "make good" when it didn’t. That’s an issue that many networks are now raising among advertisers as they’re watching more money go directly into producers’ pockets and not into a network's ad sales coffers.

Mark Burnett Productions and DreamWorks Television both sold airtime for the show in addition to handling integration rights. DreamWorks' Jeffrey Katzenberg was a co-producer on the show, alongside Mark Burnett and actor Sylvester Stallone, who also acted as the show's host. The series cost NBC $2 million-plus per hour.

Early Nielsen Media Ratings for the show's two hour finale last night averaged 7.96 million viewers, reaching a peak in the 9.30 p.m.-10 p.m. final half hour which pulled in 9.95 million viewers. The Contender, suffered from a lack of interest among women, who typically are bigger enthusiasts of reality TV than men.

At its high point, the regularly scheduled series pulled in 7.8 million viewers while the lowest-rated episodes attracted 5 million viewers. In the 18-49 year old demo the show ranged from between 3-4 million.

In addition to winning $1 million, Contender winner Sergio Mora on Tuesday also took home a Toyota Tundra truck as part of the purse.

Lusting after the deal
One executive familiar with Toyota's disappointment in the show said it was a case of both client and agency "lusting after the deal." Indeed, many were surprised at the huge interest in the show, especially after Fox's Next Great Champ, which had a similar premise and also didn't deliver ratings, was shifted to cable sibling FX.

Toyota worked with Rich Frank, chairman at The Firm, a Los Angeles-based talent management company, to seal the deal. The automaker's media agency is Publicis Groupe's Zenith Media while sibling Saatchi & Saatchi handles creative.

According to Nielsen Media Research's product placement Place View measurement service, which monitors brand exposure, The Contender was the No. 1 show on TV for the entire season (September to May) for product placements. The 14 episodes of The Contender had 6,085 brand occurrences, almost double that of the No. 2 ranked show for product placement, The Apprentice, another Mark Burnett show, which had 3,564 brand occurrences.

'Didn't get the total audience'
Mark Simmons, national manager of advertising strategy and media at Toyota Motor Sales USA's Toyota division, said: "We didn't get the total audience we wanted, but strategically it's been the right place for us," given that such a high concentration of young men watched the show. Indeed the audience skewed younger as the show progressed. The median age was 42.8 for the first episode and 38.7 by the end of the series.

When asked if Toyota had overpaid for what the company received, Mr. Simmons said that “the terms of the deal were positive for us since we had premier sponsorship and ringside signage. The key point is if it had huge ratings and was one of the top 10 shows like American Idol, we would have had more value for the money. It was a good brand association for us. Would I have loved it to have been an American Idol? Absolutely."

Toyota and Intel sponsored the online broadcast of The Contender's final bout, which was Webcast May 24.

Toyota was one of a number of marketers who lined up to sponsor the show. The others included Home Depot, Foot Locker, PepsiCo's Gatorade and Sierra Mist and Everlast Worldwide.

While a representative for Mark Burnett Productions did not return calls at press time, Mr. Burnett is known to have felt that the tough time slot for The Contender did not help its success. The show was not renewed by NBC for a second season.

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Jean Halliday contributed to this report.

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