The Power of One

I miss Uncle Miltie. What a salesman. From the time "Texaco Star Theater" launched in 1948 until it aired its last gag in 1956, some estimates have it that the show, and its clown-king master of ceremonies, Milton Berle, sold 30 million TV sets. How much gasoline the show sold, I don't know. What people thought of Texaco during and after the program's legendary run, I don't know, either.

Either way, we probably will never see the likes of it again, because the cable and broadcast networks, media agencies, ad agencies, and advertisers aren't thinking in terms of single-sponsor shows anymore.

Like media, the idea of branding an entire TV show's run has shattered into a million little pieces. Some shows premiere with single sponsors or embedded content, and cable movies increasingly strike monogamous relationships with sponsors. There are occasional oddities, like the experimental, 30-minute music TV show that was sold to local stations a few years ago, with commercial time owned by Pepsi.

But single sponsorship of an entire season of a network show? Too expensive, the experts say. And what's the point, engagement-wise? The only exception, inevitably brought up when the topic is TV sponsorship, is the 55-year-old "Hallmark Hall of Fame," which is an anthology, not a weekly program. Or Johnson & Johnson's success with sponsoring award-winning cable movies. But again, that's not a whole season's worth of a show with your name on it.

That's too bad, because this is an idea whose time should come again.

Granted, it's expensive and it's a big commitment. Then again, so is marriage, and most of us seem to have survived that trial with nothing worse than a few extra pounds and a tendency to complain a lot.

See, here's what the power of one sponsor can restore: that hoary, dusty, old-media idea of building the brand. Remember brands? Don't worry; you can look up their meaning on Wikipedia.

Maybe "Hallmark Hall of Fame" has survived for more than a half-century not simply because it's the exception that proves the rule. Maybe it's just because nobody else has had the guts to try it.

Imagine having an entire season to experiment with. A marketer could sponsor the premiere episode as a commercial-free experience. In another episode, a marketer could give a couple minutes away to non-competing advertisers. It could be tied into an online effort, or a sweepstakes partnership with another marketer.

After all, even in the primordial broadcasts sponsored by Texaco, Buick, Kraft, and all the others, commercial content was embedded in a big way, and in a self-mocking way that would be instantly familiar to today's jaded viewers. For example, Sid Stone, Texaco's pitchman on "Star Theater," would often be comically chased off the stage by a cop in mid-spiel.

I'm not suggesting "The Poulan Weed-Eater Presents CSI: Des Moines" or "Levitra's The Unit." But reality shows are primed for this, and some are just a half-step away from single sponsors anyway. "American Idol" might as well be "Coca-Cola American Idol."

Think of how much fun media agencies' new support staff -- we call them creatives, and they used to run things -- could have cooking up ideas to keep a whole season's worth of single-sponsor programming fresh. They might actually be excited enough to refrain from whining about how media planning really should belong to them again.

That alone would be worth the money.

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