Dialing For Dollars: Ford, Coke, Cingular Vote Yes For 'American Idol'

It might take bankruptcy for any of the three elite-level sponsors of "American Idol" to drop out, because for the sixth straight season, the trio is back. Ford, Coca-Cola and Cingular will return as official sponsors of the mega-hit when it returns Jan. 16.

The three have deals with Fox that give them the right of first refusal to re-up each season for the integrated sponsorships, sources said. The deals include prime exposure, ranging from product placement to a role in the voting to advertising exclusivity.

The price tag is in the $25 million per season range, a source said. A Fox representative declined comment. The sponsorships are some of the most prime real estate in television.

"It's a combination of having visible integration in just a phenomenal show," says Doug Seay, a former buyer at Starcom MediaVest Group now with Eclipse Television. "It's not a bargain; you could reinvest somewhere else. But you don't get that cachet."

But it is unclear whether the three marketers' deals are structured in such a way as to prevent Fox from signing up other marketers for similar sponsorships, potentially diluting their presence.



"It's an awesome partnership for us," a Ford representative says.

The car company's vehicles will once again be featured in vignettes with the "Idol" finalists within the show, while the winner and runner-up will receive a Ford, although the model has yet to be determined. The representative also says that as the official automotive sponsor, Ford gets category exclusivity as an advertiser during traditional commercial breaks.

A representative for Cingular said the marketer gets similar category exclusivity for ads in one of "Idol's" two weekly shows. Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Cingular's sponsorship allows viewers to vote for their favorite contestants via text messages on one of the marketer's phones. While viewers can also vote by phone, text messages can only be sent with Cingular phones. And host Ryan Seacrest repeatedly trumpets the Cingular option.

The Cingular representative says the company has seen the volume of text messaging grow exponentially since 2003, when 7.5 million messages were sent to 64.5 million last year. That's potentially millions in revenue for Cingular. The representative declined to comment on whether Fox gets a cut of the messaging revenue.

"We've found that over the past few years, we're beginning to see a new set of text-ers," the representative says. "We know kids are text-ing, but we're bringing in some adults who are starting to text."

Last season, Cingular also began offering users the chance to download "live" songs from the contestants to be used as ringtones.

Other new integrations are on tap for the upcoming season from Ford and Cingular, although company representatives would not provide details.

Coca-Cola's deal again includes title sponsorship of the "Red Room," where contestants prepare before hitting the stage. Branded Coke cups are placed in front of the three judges.

But this year, Coke is adding several new online initiatives. On its MyCokeRewards.com site, visitors can submit questions for the contestants that Seacrest will ask them on-air. Consumers will also be able to win "Idol" merchandise through the site.

And in a new twist to its signature placement of Coke cups in front of the judges, visitors to a Coke section on AmericanIdol.com can submit a design for a new version of the cups--which will be used in at least one episode.

Coke also has category advertising exclusivity.

"It's that level of integration where your brand is part of the show and experience. Being able to take it offline and elsewhere can really create an "American Idol" experience," says a Coke representative, explaining why the marketer re-ups each season.

All three marketers took a chance signing on as charter sponsors of an unproven American version of a British singing competition when it launched in the summer of 2002. By the time the summer was over, "Idol" had become a cultural and ratings phenomenon. That reign has continued, and the program could be the top-rated show on television for years to come.

Cingular initially was a sponsor in its previous incarnation as AT&T Wireless, and will take on that brand again after the AT&T/BellSouth merger is completed.

Although many shows lose popularity with age, "Idol" is defying the odds. Last season, its Tuesday and Wednesday shows were the season's top two in the 18-to-49 demo, with a 12.9 and 12.3 rating, respectively. Those ratings were up from an 11.4 and 11.1 in 2005.

Viewer averages were 31 million and 30 million, respectively, for the Tuesday and Wednesday shows last season--up from 27 million and 26 million in 2005.

Jon Nesvig, president of sales for Fox, has previously said: "These integrated sponsorships have allowed us to expand the scope of the "Idol" brand far beyond traditional advertising and into marketing platforms previously untapped."

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