Sponsors behind camera

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When TV fare was scarce in the 1950s, advertisers filled the video void by producing their own shows. Now a half-century later, more advertisers are again nestling into the producer's chair.

The level of advertiser involvement varies. Beyond paid product placement, an advertiser's involvement can extend to funding "family-friendly" shows or producing its own, branded programs a la the "Hallmark Hall of Fame."

As in the past, one goal of advertisers is to match their brands with what they deem appropriate content. But other motives are to combat ad and content clutter, media fragmentation and the increasing threat from commercial-zapping technologies like TiVo and ReplayTV.

"For the 50% of the public who is increasingly using technology, including TiVo and Replay, [advertisers are] going to have to find a way other than traditional means to effectively relate to them," says Bob Wehling, global marketing officer of Procter & Gamble Co. "There's likely to be a lot of experimentation."

Increasingly, advertisers also are concerned about the quality and tone of the programming into which they pour their money. "Periodically, you hear from advertisers that they feel there's a lack of connection between their product messages and the programming," says Carolyn Bivens, exec VP-managing director for the Western region of Initiative Media North America, Los Angeles.


"The marketplace may be going back to the days ... of sponsored hours of programming" in which an advertiser can control content, says Bob Friedman, president of New Line Television and co-chairman of worldwide marketing at New Line Cinema.

Hallmark Cards never left that venue, but now others are getting involved, including Clorox Co., which last March sponsored "Going Home," a CBS made-for-TV movie that appeared under the "Clorox Diamond Presentation" banner.

Networks also are seeing the advantage of such programming. New Line Television is producing the new TNT series "Breaking News," which Turner Entertainment Sales has billed both as free from potentially embarrassing scenes and a venue for potential product placements.

Advertisers are even banding together to affect content, via the 45-member Family Friendly Programming Forum. Formed by the Association of National Advertisers, the forum provides development funds and ad support for family-oriented programming in a partial effort to reclaim the 8 p.m. (ET) slot as the family hour. Forum members include P&G, General Motors Corp. and Unilever.


The forum has a script development fund, whose first project was "Gilmore Girls," which debuted last fall on the WB network. The show drew positive reviews and ratings respectable enough for the Warner Bros.-owned network to pick up six additional episodes after the initial 13.

"Let's say over 10 years we get five shows to stick and be successful," Mr. Wehling says. "Then I think we have changed the environment. To me that would be real success."

Advertisers contemplating becoming their own producers need to learn lessons from those who have done it in the past, too, Ms. Bivens warns. Some, such as P&G, found drawbacks in being locked into their own productions in the 1970s and '80s as media choices proliferated and ratings declined.

When P&G bought pharmaceutical company Richardson-Vicks in 1985, one surprise was finding that the acquired company was paying less than P&G to advertise on P&G-produced shows, says Jim Van Cleave, former VP-media and programming at P&G.

For its part, P&G takes a less active role in producing TV programming than it did years ago, when its lineup included several soap operas, beauty pageants and prime-time series.

Today, P&G produces two daytime soaps and the "People's Choice Awards." It also has partnerships with Paramount Pictures to produce TV series, which have included "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine" and "Dawson's Creek." P&G works with producers Tim Reid and Lou Gossett Jr. to create made-for-TV movies as part of an effort to fostering more minority involvement in TV production.

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