How Online Video Sites Could Be the New Home for a New Kind of 'Masterpiece'

What if you could go to a Website video service and watch a truly first class dramatic production, commercial free, except for a little notice at the beginning that the program was being sponsored by, let’s say, a large oil company?

After that, nada. No commercials. Just one hour (or more) of terrific content.

Well one thing you’d have is something very close to “Masterpiece Theatre,” which from 1971 to 2004 was underwritten by Mobil on PBS.

Here’s something for those of you who feel every aspect of life should be branded and accompanied by a commercial: Only after 25 years did PBS change the title of the series to Mobil Masterpiece Theatre. It just got a little billboard before each episode. In 2004, ExxonMobil finally ended its association. According to one account, it spent over $250 million on “Masterpiece” and its kissing cousin, “Mystery” over that  time.

Well, PBS does end up being a little bit of an incubator for subscription programming, except it’s voluntary, not a pay service like HBO. Or Netflix. Or Amazon. And so on.



The point is, online video proponents and digital advertising firms must be overjoyed to see the success of what have come to be known as premium video services. And maybe a little worried. If that is the future for premium content, where’s the place for advertisers?

 Maybe, it’s that Mobil example. If Cadillac had sponsored “House of Cards”  ("The Cadilllac Playhouse presents 'House of Cards'") with that same kind of soft approach, would Netflix subscribers have minded? I doubt it. The concert business has sponsored tours for so long Neil Young must be the only rock musician still alive who hasn’t been obliged to pay homage to Budweiser; today, more likely, rock musicians seek out tour underwriters. 

 Cynthia Boris, writing for, notes that Hulu is free with a relatively full boat of advertising but HuluPlus, the premium side of Hulu, charges for the service. And it does carry some ads, just fewer than Hulu. (It’s really kind of Hulu Minus A Little).

 “Maybe, just maybe, that’s why the service isn’t doing so well. I know it’s the reason I canceled my subscription,” she wrote.   

She notes that last week at a Goldman Sachs conference Hulu’s CEO Andy Forssell hinted at a true ad-free HuluPlus.

 “I think that’s the right path long term. I believe over time we should introduce an ad-free service,” he said.

A seemingly workable in-the-middle solution might be underwriting. In an Internet era, a latter day Mobil “sponsoring” a latter day “Masterpiece” on a premium pay Internet pay service would have a much easier time hustling over millions of viewers to a YouTube channel or some other place for the full-blown pitch—that’s something Mobil couldn’t do back in 1971 or whenever.  

The earliest days of television had similar showcases—Milton Berle wore a Texaco uniform, Camel cigarettes sponsored a newscast and The United States Steel Hour was a top-notch TV anthology series for a decade, and on radio before that. The idea of television program sponsors seems kind of old fashioned. Possibly, though for online video, it’s the way to go.

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