NATPE: Branded Entertainment Is Topic A
The main draw for Madison Avenue won't necessarily be first-run shows
By Joe Mandese -- Broadcasting & Cable, 1/16/2005 7:00:00 PM
The buzz among top media buyers at this year's annual TV syndication mart, NATPE 2005, won't be the new first-run shows starring supermodel Tyra Banks or Howard Stern sidekick Robin Quivers. Media buyers and syndicators in Las Vegas will be far more interested in branded entertainment, or deals that integrate clients' products and brands into TV programs, either as product placement or as part of the script.
This is the same topic that has been driving early talks between media buyers and the broadcast and cable networks, as well as the Hollywood studios that supply them: the prospect of getting in on the ground floor of an opportunity to integrate their products and brands into what could be the next big hit.
The problem, say Madison Avenue media buyers, is that the syndication business hasn't generated a big list of hits lately. The most successful shows launched over the past couple of years—NBC Universal's Ellen Degeneres Show and Buena Vista Television's Tony Danza Show—are getting ratings that would be considered respectable by cable-TV standards but are not exactly the kind of numbers advertisers expect from broadcast-TV hits.
“None of those were really a breakout show,” notes Brad Adgate, senior vice president and director of corporate research at Horizon Media, New York. “The last genuine hit in syndication would be Dr. Phil.”
Now syndicators and advertisers alike are looking to develop a wide array of branded entertainment opportunities. Already, off-network shows feature product placement technologies that can place brands in series that have already been produced. Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution has been leading some of those conversations for off-network shows like Friends and Drew Carey.
Tie-Ins must seem natural
Frank Zazza, president of iTVX, a company that tracks product-placement deals on television, says one of the problems with virtual product placement is creating tie-ins that seem natural and organic with the original production. For example, placing a box of Tide detergent on the counter of Café Perk on the set of Friends might seem contrived, but placing a container of Tropicana orange juice on the table in Rachel and Monica's apartment while they're having breakfast might seem perfectly natural.
The NATPE agenda has several sessions devoted to the topic, including panels on “branded entertainment” and “advertiser as partner,” but Richard Linnett, director of MPG Entertainment, the branded entertainment unit of media agency MPG, New York, says the real action will be in the exhibition booths and in the dining establishments surrounding the conference. “People will be flocking to NATPE to talk to producers,” he says.
While Madison Avenue has watched branded-entertainment deals heat up in syndication recently, it is The Oprah Winfrey Show's landmark deal that gave new Pontiac cars away to every member of the studio audience that has captivated the ad industry.
“Now everyone is looking for their Oprah deal,” said Jana O'Brien, executive vice president-executive director of strategic research at General Motors Planworks, the unit handling GM's media planning, during a recent industry conference.
“It created a whole ruckus out there,” says iTVX's Zazza. “It opened up syndication for millions of dollars in product placement.”
The syndication business had already been stepping up such deals when the Oprah/Pontiac agreement broke, he says, citing similar plugs on Ellen Degeneres, Tony Danza and other first-run talk shows. He says product placement has always been an integral part of syndicated game shows but is more a legacy of conventional “promotional-consideration” deals, in which marketers supply free product as prizes and pay a small fee for 10-second promotional IDs.
A big question in the minds of both buyers and sellers attending NATPE this year is how big the branded-entertainment market could actually be. “While theoretically the inventory is unlimited, we are all working together to define what is appropriate from the point of view of the show, the brand and, of course, the consumer watching at home,” says Michael Teicher, executive vice president, media sales, for Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, which sells a mix of first-run programs like Ellen Degeneres, as well as some of the highest-profile off-network series. “If these things are forced, they will become overdone and ineffective.”
Aside from branded- entertainment opportunities, media buyers aren't buzzing about the prospects for any new shows being offered in syndication this year, with the possible exception of Martha Stewart's. While few details have been made available, the show is being produced by reality-TV impresario Mark Burnett, known for hot reality shows and ample product tie-ins. “Everyone will be watching that one, because Martha Stewart and Mark Burnett are great programmers,” says iTVX's Zazza, “but they're also great marketers.”
But even that's no guarantee for success in a business where new hits have been difficult to create, mainly because established shows continue to hog the most valuable timeslots on TV stations. That makes it difficult to get the coverage and clearances necessary to get big ratings and big ad dollars.
Syndication's Stable Ratings
Consider Dr. Phil, which by most standards was the last legitimate hit in syndication. The show posts respectable ratings by first-run–syndication standards, but it isn't exactly sizzling in advertising demand. At about $38,000 per national 30-second ad unit, Dr. Phil commands a fraction of the ad rates generated by top off-network syndicated series, which reap ratings and ad prices more akin to their first-run broadcast-network counterparts than to first-run syndicated shows (see table).
As modest as demand for Dr. Phil is in the current advertising marketplace, first-run newcomers like Ellen and Tony Danza are generating ad rates more like cable than broadcast, fetching about $14,000 and $10,000, respectively, per national 30-second ad unit.
Despite the lack of significant new product, syndication continues to hold its own, delivering stable overall ratings in a marketplace where ratings continue to fragment for broadcast networks. As a result, syndication was the fastest-growing medium, next to online media, in terms of advertising budgets. “We're up 17.4% this calendar year,” boasts Mitch Burg, president of the Syndicated Network Television Association, referring to the trade group's analysis of advertising spending data for 2004.
Dearth of Sitcoms
Moreover, media buyers say there don't seem to be any significant new shows coming down the syndication pipe. “I'm not hearing any early buzz on any new programs or genres,” says Ray Warren, managing director and head of the national broadcast group at OMD USA, New York, who doesn't even plan to attend this year's NATPE convention. “There's nothing coming off the blocks.”
Andy Donchin, director of national broadcast for Carat, New York, agrees, noting that part of the problem is a shift by the major broadcast networks away from scripted programming, especially sitcoms, and toward reality fare. He warns, “There has been such a dearth of good sitcoms on network TV, you have to wonder what's coming down the pipeline.”
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