Some of the nation's largest corporate advertisers, seeking greater control over television, are proposing to create their own shows to air on the major broadcast networks.
With the networks suffering a downturn in ad revenues, advertisers sense an opportunity to buy their way back into the creative process for prime-time television and, potentially, return to the early days of broadcasting when they controlled many of the most popular shows. Network audiences may have dwindled but TV remains the most potent way to reach customers.
The trend is certain to add clutter to the already heavily commercialized airwaves, embedding more marketing messages within television shows through product placement and other subtle, and not-so-subtle, brand identifications.
A staged, unscripted program created by Ford Motor Co. to showcase its line of sport-utility vehicles, titled "No Boundaries," is set to premiere in March on the WB network. Ford also is developing other series, one of which would feature the Thunderbird.
Coca-Cola Co. is developing an hourlong drama, "Stepping Stones," starring Broadway and film actor Gregory Hines for NBC's upcoming summer season.
Madison Avenue agencies are scrambling to pull together proposals for other high-profile national clients interested in creating series, according to more than a dozen ad agency and network executives.
"The networks didn't used to want us," said Rob Donnell, the J. Walter Thompson ad agency executive who is managing Ford's foray into television programming. "I sense a sea change. . . . I've been amazed by people's willingness to write [Ford] into scripts. I've had to remind them to keep it entertaining. If it's an infomercial, the audience will walk."
The concept is a return to the origins of TV, and that may be a good thing, some observers said.
"It's the way the business began," said Newton Minow, chairman of the FCC during the Kennedy administration who shook the industry at the time by calling television "a vast wasteland."
"If the advertisers take pride in where they put their money, it will be good to bring them back into the process," he said, recalling respected shows such as Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater and Kraft Television Theater.
Minow, now an attorney in Chicago, cautioned, however, that advertisers were known to abuse their power. The quiz show scandals of the late 1950s implicated advertisers in the rigging of games.
Unlike the early years of television, when programming was relatively inexpensive, the economic risks associated with TV programming are so daunting that all but the largest Hollywood studios have left the business.
The risks are balanced against the potential reward of turning network television into a more powerful marketing tool, advertising executives say.
"You are going to see more of this kind of advertiser involvement in television," Donnell said.
Shows such as "No Boundaries" can prominently feature Ford cars and trucks, turning the shows into the equivalent of program-length commercial messages. Advertisers can design shows to appeal to the demographic audience they most want to reach or to create a particular brand image, as Hallmark has done with its "Hall of Fame" series.
These advantages will be particularly significant, according to the agencies, as video recording equipment such as Replay and TiVo make it easier to skip past traditional ads. Already, with viewers using commercial breaks to channel surf, ads are less effective.
"Blending a commercial message with a program so that the program is the message" offers an advertiser "a perfect marketing fit," said Robert Riesenberg, an executive vice president of Universal McCann, Coke's advertising agency.
With "Stepping Stones," "Coca-Cola's goal is to have an all-encompassing relationship with the show," said Riesenberg, noting that it would feature a multiethnic, multigenerational cast that Coke wants its brand to represent.
Networks, intent on cutting programming costs, consider deep-pocketed advertisers a potential new source of funding.
"We've always believed in a separation of church and state," said NBC president of entertainment Jeff Zucker, noting that advertisers shouldn't be involved in all aspects of programming. "But we're also realistic about finances."
Some advertising industry executives dismiss the trend.
"There is almost a frantic attempt by the television programming community to get advertisers to pay for their untenable economic model," said Irwin Gotlieb, CEO of MindShare, a unit of WPP Group, one of the world's largest advertising conglomerates. "We will be making a terrible mistake if we put shows on the air just because an advertiser is willing to finance them. We have to give the viewers what they want to watch, not what we want them to watch."
Several companies, most notably Procter & Gamble, have always dabbled in programming. Daytime soap operas "The Guiding Light" and "As the World Turns" are both produced and owned by P&G, which uses them to market its products. The company is one of several, such as Hallmark, that have regularly produced made-for-TV movies to air on the major networks.
During the late 1990s, P&G partially financed "King of Queens," "Becker" and "Family Law." They were purely financial investments with no creative involvement by P&G. The deals have since expired.
Now the investments need to fulfill marketing objectives, said Jeff Grant, president of worldwide programming for MediaVest, which handles the P&G account. "The networks are [saying] they will buy a show if they can get it funded by an advertiser," he said.
But not everyone in the industry is enthralled. "It rarely works to order up a show for [a marketing] reason," said Gary Newman, president of Twentieth Century Fox Television, noting that his studio isn't currently working with any advertisers to create shows.
CBS president of advertising sales, Joe Abruzzese, dismissed the trend as bad business for the networks. "I'm not interested in these shows" unless the advertiser buys all of the advertising time running with it, Abruzzese said. "Their hidden agenda is saving money."
NBC's Zucker agreed that the financial value of the shows to the networks is unclear. "This hasn't been done before," he said. "But it may be a good way to develop and produce a series that we may not otherwise be able to afford."
Coke has a development commitment with NBC, but the network is still debating whether it will order "Stepping Stones" for the summer season, Zucker said.
Ford also hopes to sell its Thunderbird show to NBC, said J. Walter Thompson's Donnell.
"We've had talks," NBC West Coast president Scott Sassa said, stressing that the network has talks with lots of people pitching programming ideas.
The show featuring the Thunderbird is "a cool guy, cool car show," Donnell said, noting that it would be in the vein of 1980s hits such as "Starsky and Hutch." Donnell also produced Ford's "No Boundaries." Named after Ford's SUV marketing campaign, the 13-episode series uses Ford SUVs in a 2,000-mile race from Vancouver, British Columbia, to the Alaskan Yukon. Ford co-produced the show with Lions Gate Entertainment.
"The objective is to help us connect with our customers in a new way," said Ford marketing manager Drew Cook. "As we go through this, we'll learn the effectiveness of the shows."
There is no single economic formula for advertiser-created shows. For instance, it isn't clear whether Coke would have an equity stake in "Stepping Stones." But the "No Boundaries" deal could be a blueprint for other deals.
Originally conceived by Lions Gate, the show was picked up by the WB after Ford signed on for half of the roughly $500,000 per episode it cost to produce. In exchange, Ford received a 50% stake in the show.
WB required Ford to guarantee that it would cover half of the 16 30-second spots running with the show. Ford is using four of those spots and is selling the rest to other advertisers. Ford is paying market rate for the time.
"With 'No Boundaries,' we get to spend an hour presenting the value of the Ford brand," Donnell said. And an ad that airs during the show "is more effective. It spikes the spot," he said.
Jed Petrick, president of the WB Network, said "No Boundaries" has been a successful experiment for the network. "Everyone is looking for good ideas and sometimes they come from advertisers."
Corie Brown, Los Angeles Times. January 15, 2002
Copyright © 2001 Los Angeles Times. All rights reserved.