Will the BBC play a winning card?

The BBC’s foray into promotional link-ups could herald a new era of commercialism

SBHD: The BBC’s foray into promotional link-ups could herald a new era of commercialism

The BBC appears to have taken seriously the words of last year’s White Paper, which promised an increasingly commercial future for the corporation.

This emerged most clearly last Saturday in the first programme in a 12-week series of the snooker game show Big Break, which will be “sponsored” by the Daily Mirror via an interactive game card promotion.

Viewers of the programme use Daily Mirror cards to play the game at home, with the chance of winning £40,000.

“Play Big Break and Pot a Fortune”, runs the full-page ad in this week’s Radio Times. It is the sign of an increasingly flexible approach to commercialism within the BBC. How does the corporation reconcile Big Break with its commitment to fencing off licence fee-funded programming from profit-making business?

The answer is by interpreting this particular deal as licensing. The BBC, together with the Terry Mardell Organisation, which owns the format of the game and its stars Jim Davidson and John Virgo, is selling the Mirror the rights to use the show for its promotion.

The advantages for the BBC are obvious. With viewers who can play an interactive game at home, Big Break has more of a chance of beating off New Baywatch, at the start of ITV’s early Saturday evening schedule.

But it also profits more directly. “We get a fair amount of promotional benefit from the deal as well as some money,” says head of licensing at BBC Worldwide, John Howson. But the cash flows back into programming budgets, to improve the overall BBC product, as Howson is quick to point out.

Of course, this does not contravene the BBC’s charter, since the Mirror receives no on-screen mentions, or opening or closing sequences. To the uninitiated, it looks like a very awkward form of sponsorship, since the sponsor’s name never appears on the broadcast product at all.

As Howson explains, this is the BBC’s first real experiment with this sort of deal. In true BBC style, it is more interested in the audience research to follow than the tie-up’s initial success.

Ads for the promotion make it elaborately clear that it “is not run by the BBC, nor has it provided the prize money”.

But other sponsorship specialists hope Big Break may be the first step in a relaxation of the BBC’s present embargo. Sponsorvision managing director Blair Krempel, who has managed a number of interactive TV deals with News International, says: “This is a tester to see if newspaper sponsorship will boost (the BBC’s) audience.”

“It needs the money to compete for acquired programming and also to spike ITV, to make it aware it’s not the only broadcaster in the market,” he adds. Krempel, along with the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers, would like to see sponsorship included in the 1996 Royal Charter.

Howson has confirmed that negotiations for a similar deal with another national newspaper are already under way. If the experiment is successful, the market for association with BBC progress could be immense.

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