Warning: Couch potatoes shouldn't rely on commercial breaks for those all-important trips to the kitchen or the bathroom.
After growing complaints about the barrage of ads cluttering up television shows, major networks are beginning to embrace the notion of airing programs without those common interruptions.
Until recently, commercial-free sponsorships were a rarity. But in recent months advertisers including Ford Motor, XM Satellite Radio Holdings and SABMiller's Miller Brewing have paid for shows to run commercial-free, often as part of a larger package involving placement of their products in the program.
By sponsoring such episodes, marketers generate goodwill with viewers and put promotional stunts into play that are decidedly more creative than the usual 30-second spot.
TV producers appreciate the trend. "We as show runners have to learn how to integrate advertisers as well as appreciate the advertisers. Otherwise, we will end up off the air," says Jonathan Prince, executive producer of "American Dreams," a drama on General Electric's NBC. Ford will sponsor a commercial-free broadcast of an emotional episode of the show set to air before Thanksgiving.
As part of the sponsorship, Ford's famous Mustang will be shown in classic print and TV car ads featured in the episode. Ford will bracket the show with a preshow ad sporting a new 2005 Mustang morphing into a classic edition of the car as well as a postshow minimovie. "American Dreams" isn't Ford's first commercial-free sponsorship: it has sponsored commercial-free season premieres for "24," the spy serial on News Corp.'s Fox, for two seasons, and a 1997 airing of "Schindler's List" on NBC that was uninterrupted by commercials.
Miller sponsored the commercial-free season premiere of "Rescue Me," the randy drama about firefighters on News Corp.'s FX -- which has aggressively pursued such deals. In return Miller got comments from viewers thanking the brewer for the uninterrupted content. XM sponsored this season's premiere of FX's plastic-surgery drama "Nip/Tuck," ran commercials before and after the program and received product-placement guarantees. A recent episode featured XM prominently in one scene. Viacom's CBS has had conversations with advertisers about the commercial-free idea as well.
Some media buyers are doubtful that commercial-free sponsorships will become much more common. Sponsoring a show without ads on a broadcast network is likely to be costly. It typically requires buying out national time and local ad minutes from network affiliates, says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, an entertainment-marketing specialist at Publicis Groupe's Starcom Entertainment. A network must also weigh whether giving the show to one sponsor is worth the revenue it could miss from others. Some of the deals "take a lot of finesse," she says. "They are more complicated than they sound."
Buying out a cable program might be less expensive than broadcast, media buyers say. But it still wouldn't be cheap, cautions David Levy, who oversees selling ad time on Time Warner's TBS and TNT cable networks. Executives there have considered the commercial-free idea for certain limited series, he says, though no deals have been done.
"I just have a hard time seeing why a great amount of clients would find the need to do this," especially if there is no long-term association with the program, says Bill McOwen, of Havas's MPG media-buying firm. "On a one-shot basis, I question the real need to pursue it."
Should marketers hook into the idea en masse, advertisers will need to "blow their own horn about their connections to the show," says Frances Page of Interpublic Group's Magna Global Entertainment.
Such promotion would lead to commercials about commercials that help sponsor programs without commercials, a taxing idea probably best left alone.
Brian Steinberg, The Wall Street Journal. October 15, 2004.
Copyright © 2004 Dow Jones & Company. All rights reserved.