Self-liquidating programme

The search for TV show funding has led to a rise in sponsorship deals, but a new wine series tie-up with Sainsbury’s has sparked concern at the BBC. Torin Douglas reports

Which internationally-known broadcaster carries no advertising and explains its stance in the following terms? “It means we are concerned about satisfying our viewers instead of being driven by the need to sell advertising. It gives us the flexibility to do different things in our programming and adds to the trustworthiness people can expect from something with our name on.”

No, not the BBC – though it has often expressed similar views, most recently when its chairman Marmaduke Hussey pointed out the problems ITV was having with its advertisers. The words are those of Tom Wszalek, managing director of the Disney Channel UK, which launches on satellite and cable on October 1.

The Disney Channel will be a premium channel in the Sky movie package, and Wszalek believes this positioning will be reinforced by the absence of advertising. Though much of its fare will be familiar to UK audiences – Ducktales, Winnie the Pooh and Rescue Rangers – the station aspires to provide more than mere entertainment.

Take “Adventures in Wonderland”, based on the Lewis Carroll characters. A press release, explaining the channel’s “programme rationale”, says every episode addresses language skills. “Areas as diverse as vocabulary, idioms, proverbs, homonyms, synonyms, similes, rhyming words and puns are covered in this 100-episode series. Storylines are written to maximise the educational value.”

You don’t hear much about homonyms on the BBC these days, but if any broadcaster has managed successfully to combine education and entertainment it is the Beeb. Education, in its broadest sense, is one of the “big ideas” underpinning its future strategy in an increasingly competitive and commercial world. The latest manifestation is BBC Worldwide Learning, a new division of its commercial arm.

This recognition that education and commerce need not be incompatible and in some cases can be mutually beneficial – is not new at the BBC. The “book of the TV series” is a longstanding phenomenon, from those Seventies factual blockbusters, Civilisation, America and The Ascent of Man, through to the BBC’s latest and most ambitious, People’s Century – which is also being developed as a CD-Rom.

The need to look beyond the licence fee to fund such ventures is also not new – the blockbusters’ presenters, Clark, Cooke and Bronowski, and their production teams all relied on co-production money, from America and elsewhere, to fund their enlightening epics. But the search for money on all channels is now more acute. Disney is harnessing the new revenue stream of subscription, others are raising money from sponsorship, merchandising and secondary rights.

Such deals can bring undoubted benefits to broadcasters and viewers, but inevitably there are also questions as to how far a programme may legitimately be exploited without damaging its credibility or that of the broadcaster.

One of the most innovative ventures this autumn involves Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course, a ten-part series on BBC2, in which each film focuses on a different grape. It’s an independent production, made by Eden, the company run by Ms Robinson and her husband, Nick Lander, the former proprietor of L’Escargot, who also devised the Financial Times’ highly successful lunch for a fiver promotion.

The series is beautifully made and is likely to find a large audience, helped by a Radio Times front cover and 16-part supplement, adapted from the book of the series. What may make some viewers appreciate the series even more is the ability, as they watch, to taste the wine being discussed – effectively making the series interactive.

For Lander, who owns the merchandising and overseas sales rights, has struck a promotional deal with Sainsbury’s, which is selling Jancis Robinson’s Wine Selection – wines linked to the series, available either by the bottle or in a “tasting case”. There are special in-store displays, featuring the wines and the book of the series, and Sainsbury’s is also mailing 10,000 customers, drawing their attention to the selection and offering it by mail order.

Lander believes the deal breaks new ground for independent producers and shows a way forward for them as they struggle to make high-quality productions for broadcasters whose budgets are being squeezed. The BBC could not afford the full cost of the 1.1m series, so Eden, put up 200,000, in return for the merchandising and overseas rights. BBC Books put in the final 200,000.

To maximise the return, Lander hired Total Communication Partnership, run by Mike Vanderkar and Sean McCormick, which has put together TV sponsorship deals for clients such as First Choice Holidays. Together, they visited several of the top wine-selling supermarkets and off-licence chains, putting forward the concept. Eventually a contract was signed with Sainsbury’s, giving Eden a licensing fee and a small royalty on sales.

Vanderkar and McCormick then developed a communication package, involving editorial and/or offers in Radio Times, You magazine, She, the FT – for which Robinson writes a weekly column – Sainsbury’s magazine and others. “We’re trying to complete the circle between the programme, the retailer, the media and the viewer, so everybody benefits,” says Vanderkar.

But so successfully that the BBC – having endorsed the concept at an early stage – became concerned. While the series was in production, its commercial guidelines were tightened and it insisted Sainsbury’s should remove references to the BBC from its advertising.

How far should there be concern? There is undoubtedly a close link between the programme and the retailer, and the promotion involves alcohol – one of the areas about which the BBC is particularly sensitive.

Yet the series is unaffected by the marketing and merchandising, except to the extent that it has helped finance it. These are classic BBC programmes – beautifully written and filmed, entertaining and educational. They make no mention of Sainsbury’s or any other retailer. The BBC has received no money, because the deal is with Eden, nor has it endorsed Sainsbury’s.

Lander hopes the series’ merchandising might prove a model for others. “If independent producers can make money out of marketing their series, they may be in a better financial position to get more commissions.” I suspect the BBC would be more cautious, for fear of unleashing a wave of equally innovative, but less beneficial, commercial exploitation.

Torin Douglas is BBC Radio’s correspondent

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