Back to the Future

Will TV return to its single-sponsor glory days?

It seems that 1948 was a very good year for television. There were more than 900 advertisers on TV that year, an astounding 515 percent increase over 1947. "The Ed Sullivan Show," sponsored by Lincoln-Mercury, premiered. B.F. Goodrich sponsored a new series with radio crossover stars George Burns and Gracie Allen. And Milton Berle stole the small screen in September of that year, when "Texaco Star Theater" launched.

By 1950, Variety was moved to declare the stampede of national sponsors abandoning radio for TV "the greatest exhibition of mass hysteria in biz annals." But the tidal wave hadn't even peaked.

In 1951, the great-granddaddy of single-sponsor TV, the still-running "Hallmark Hall of Fame," went live. The 1950s also saw the advent of such legendary over-the-air fare as the "Colgate Comedy Hour" and "Kraft Television Theater." Mirroring its radio antecedent, in fact, the visual medium's Golden Age was "the single-sponsor era," as Mike Mashon, curator in the motion picture, broadcasting, and recorded sound division of the Library of Congress, described it in the Library's Information Bulletin.

With the 2006-2007 upfront upon us, branded entertainment, the "It Girl" of contemporary marketing, is sure to be a heated contender in the annual tug-of-war. But will a return to those lone-ranger days of single-sponsored programming be part of the wrangling?

Yes. And no. Maybe. Depends on whom you ask. But the subject is hot.

"When I go to meetings and I hear people talking about 'Kraft Theater' and what was done in the past -- we've moved beyond that," says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, president of Starcom Entertainment, which scored the deal for client Miller Beer to sponsor the premiere episode of "Rescue Me" on FX. "We want to create an experience and a level of engagement. It's not just about sponsoring something commercial-free," she says, adding, "People are asking us to explore it because they are looking for ways to cut through clutter. That's why everybody is looking at that model. Philips doing '60 Minutes' is the last big example."

Another potential use for single sponsorship is as an anti-TiVo tactic. But Caraccioli-Davis echoes her peers when she observes that the idea is only partially the answer: "It kind of helps us. It doesn't hurt."

Speaking of "60 Minutes," DDB, Carat, and client Philips teamed up last year for the successful takeover of an episode of the venerable news show, a concept that originated with CBS. The idea fits perfectly with the advertiser's "sense and simplicity" theme, and whetted DDB's appetite for similar approaches, including a return to the old single-sponsor network TV model.

"I see it as a real possibility, especially if the first couple of clients that do it, do it in a way where it's really enjoyable to watch and not interruptive," explains ddb New York chairman and chief creative officer Lee Garfinkel. "You go back to the old Milton Berle show with the ventriloquist -- people loved the commercials."

There's no evidence that any advertiser plans to take over a network series anytime soon, and clients still seem to favor deals "where there are select partnerships for sponsorships on particular shows," as Association of National Advertisers president and CEO Bob Liodice puts it. "I don't think it will ever return to the way it was," he says.

Still, it seems likely that some advertisers will eventually try to get back to the future. The single-sponsor model could be very effective in one form or another, -- for example, buying the premiere episode of a network or cable series and running it commercial-free; funding scripts for shows worth advertising on, as the Family Friendly Programming Forum has done so successfully in the past few years; sponsoring cable movies; or experimenting with interstitials.

In 2005, former Initiative Media CEO and now marketing and media consultant Michael Kassan undertook a study on the future of TV for a large media conglomerate with cable and broadcast properties. He interviewed chief marketing officers at ad agencies around the country. When asked about the prospects for a return to something like "Texaco Star Theater," Kassan says he's heard a lot of talk about it, but thinks "the networks are nervous; they're not getting behind it yet. And still, to their credit, they're smart enough to say, wait a minute, we better look at it."

However, even proponents admit the price of a single-sponsor venture today would be daunting. Cost, in fact, is the largest objection raised by people who don't believe single sponsorship of network shows, with the tens of millions of dollars it would cost, could work anymore.

"The economics just aren't there," says media consultant Erwin Ephron, partner in New York's Ephron, Papazian & Ephron. "The yield to the selling network has to be at a certain point. So the cost to the advertiser becomes extremely high and what he is buying is frequency, he's not buying reach. And most advertisers do not have a range of commercials to justify that. Whenever these things have been done in recent years, they've been done as event marketing and that's fine, like Ford did with the TV broadcast of 'Schindler's List.' It's much bigger than a TV event. That you can justify perhaps, but even that is hard," Ephron says.

Coming up with novel uses of single sponsorship beyond running the same spots over and over is indeed an obstacle. And in a media world obsessed with "engagement," the challenge be-comes that much tougher. In the 21st century, as mpg CEO Charlie Rutman observes, "It's a good thing to be in a lot of places." Besides, he says he doesn't think "a whole season [of sole sponsorship] is economically viable."

But there may be new life for the old single-sponsor gambit in emerging media like broadband and the Internet. "We're not going to return to 'Texaco Star Theater' or 'Hallmark Hall of Fame,' but it could possibly work with emerging media forms, at least in the short term," says Larry Blasius, executive vice president/director, negotiations for Magna Global, whose client Johnson & Johnson scored Emmys in the past three years for an acclaimed series of eponymous Spotlight cable movies. "It's already being done in broadband and other [emerging media] areas because the economics are such that you can do that," Blasius says.

"From a TV perspective, single sponsorship is old tech," adds Brian Terkelsen, senior vice president/ director of entertainment marketing at MediaVest. "From a new media perspective, it isn't necessarily old and therefore it's being tested there. You see brands road-blocking Web sites."

For Terkelsen, single sponsorship has no place in a brave new world in which the water-cooler TV show is an endangered species. "We're not creating a new dialogue with consumers by going back 50 years," he concludes. "We're just pulling something up from a half-century ago, dusting it off and re-applying it. What we're striving for, what everybody should be struggling to figure out, is how to better connect with consumers. They may appreciate limited commercial interruption, but it is not delivering a big brand message without the proper context being added."

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