With TV channels proliferating, advertisers are looking to reach their target audience via programmes they fund. Alan Mitchell sees a return to the days of the original soap opera.
Two years ago Procter & Gamble chief executive Ed Artzt sent shock waves through the advertising industry with a speech foreseeing a world where pay-per-view and interactive television would block traditional advertisers from access to their audiences. Ever since, the idea that advertisers could guarantee their target markets' attention by paying to produce programmes has been gaining ground. The idea is hardly new.
P&G invented the radio soap opera 50 years ago for just this purpose. But now, as digital broadcasting technologies offer hundreds of new TV channels, traditional means of funding broadcast programming need rethinking: the industry looks like turning full circle.
Next year Granada and London Weekend Television (LWT) will broadcast two peak-time drama and entertainment programmes whose existence we owe to big-brand marketers (their identities are a closely guarded secret).
The BBC also plans to show two advertiser-subsidised series in spring 1997. Nowadays, independent production companies like Planet 24, creators of The Big Breakfast and The Word, look to advertisers for funding as much as from broadcasters, says its joint managing director Charlie Parsons.
Increasingly, advertising agencies are investing in programming arms.
What do advertisers get in return for their investment? Very little directly: current UK regulations ban any promotional reference to advertisers' brands in advertiser-supplied programmes. A BT-funded programme on the future of telecoms, for example, couldn't feature or mention any BT products.
But there are other ways to get noticed. For example, the regulations also require a 10-second top-and-tail credit that makes the company's links with a programme transparently obvious, and these credits can be 'incredibly powerful', argues Parsons.
Credits are not the only way to get a message across. A funded programme which delivers a target audience can be valuable even without credits or product references. 'What the advertiser is really buying is the programme's image,' says Parsons. This could be a marketing message that transcends the brand. If a pasta-maker wants to expand his market, for example, it may make sense for him to subsidise a series on the joys of Italian cooking. Marketers may wish to associate their brands with 'an idea, a state of mind or an attitude,' adds Joanne Reay, co-owner of a new production company, The Mission, set up in conjunction with advertising agency Simons Palmer Clemmow Johnson.
But advertiser-funded programming is dogged by controversy. Some say that the sheer cost of the investment - plus its untested cost-effectiveness - means that few advertiser-supplied programmes will end up reaching our screens. When advertising agency Young & Rubicam put its toe in the programming water, for example, it quickly withdrew. 'We didn't discover a real demand for it,' says a spokesman.
Supporters of advertiser-funded programming say it will help guarantee editorial quality as existing budgets are spread ever more thinly across more and more programmes. But critics fear that editorial quality could be undermined, with the influx of advertiser funds changing the whole mix of programming. 'I'm not aware of World in Action type programming going out on US networks,' comments Rowan O'Sullivan, LWT's compliance officer, whose job is to excise gratuitous brand plugs (allowed in the US) from programmes such as Baywatch when they're shown in this country.
'There's a very real danger that only drama and entertainments attract commercial money,' agrees Martin Lowde, head of sponsorship at Laser, which handles air-time sales for Granada and LWT.
Advertisers might turn nasty if the programme produced with their money is not to their liking. Indeed, they might find themselves unable to resist interfering editorially. A leaked letter to Planet 24 from a Heineken executive, for example, recently complained that his show, Hotel Babylon, should depict 'less men drinking wine'.
Instead he asked for it feature people drinking more 'masculine drinks like beer'. He also moaned that there was 'too high a proportion of negroes in the audience'.
Enthusiasts maintain that such howlers are just a part of the learning curve. The regulatory watchdog, the Independent Television Commission, thinks that the issues raised by advertiser-supplied programming justify a review of the rules. And the future? Declares Reay, we know we will have succeeded when the BBC can say, 'this programme is brought to you by X, and nobody bats an eyelid.'.