TV sponsorship needs fresh impetus as tabloids withdraw

The proposed relaxation of the ITC code on TV sponsors is a welcome move, but the medium must prove its mettle if it is to grow. Torin Douglas is BBC radio’s media correspondent

So magazine publishers seem finally to have won their battle to sponsor some TV programmes – at least on cable and satellite – and advertisers will be allowed to sponsor programmes directly related to their own product category. The proposed relaxation of the Independent Television Commission code – subject to public consultation – is an undoubted boost to the TV sponsorship business.

But before the sales teams throw their logo-covered baseball caps in the air and stick out their Cotton-Tradered chests, they should reflect that this may be merely another false dawn in a trade that has seen quite a few.

Almost six years after Croft Port broke the mould with Rumpole of the Bailey, by linking brand values to a TV drama, television sponsorship still hasn’t really caught the marketing director’s imagination – and seems to have escaped most ad agencies altogether (for reasons which may have something to do with money). This year the total market will be worth little more than 45m gross – about two and a half per cent of total TV ad revenue. ITV accounts for 30m – and that includes much of the record-breaking 10m Cadbury has just paid for Coronation Street.

For every step forward, TV sponsorship seems to take half a pace back. For, with far less publicity than the Cadbury coup, one of the other recent “breakthrough” sectors is quietly pulling out of TV sponsorship.

It seems tabloids are no longer queueing up to buy into ITV game shows, after jointly ploughing in an estimated 7m a year for the past two years. Mirror Group, which this year has sponsored Talking Telephone Numbers and Take Your Pick, has now withdrawn and The Sun’s deal with Lucky Numbers is coming to an end – with little sign it will be repeated.

Yet two years ago, News International tied up no fewer than four game shows – Wheel of Fortune, Family Fortunes, Go Bingo and Play Your Cards Right – in the first multiprogramme sponsorship deal in ITV’s history.

The tie-up between tabloids and game shows – cemented by scratchcards – seemed a marriage made in heaven. For the newspapers it brought an onscreen link with some of their readers’ favourite shows, resulting in good promotion and an interactive scratchcard game which would encourage readers to buy the paper.

For ITV it meant not just millions of pounds in sponsorship income but acres of promotional coverage in the tabloids, particularly on the day of the programme, helping to boost ratings. And for the sponsorship sales teams, it provided a hefty building-block on which they could construct other deals that would take TV sponsorship to new heights.

Those involved agree that the TV-newspaper tie-ins resulted in millions of readers playing the scratchcard games, and boosted circulations. So what has gone wrong?

There have been several problems. One is the sheer cost – not just of the TV deal itself but of printing and distributing the scratchcards, which during a 17-week run can be prohibitive. Another is that ITV – as must be its right – has rescheduled programmes, causing havoc with a tie-in that requires millions of pre-printed scratchcards. That is why Mirror Group ended its Take Your Pick deal, half-way through the series’ run.

Tim Brady, director of sponsorship at TSMS, now believes that for a newspaper to put its name on “an existing long-term game show for ITV is a thing of the past”. But he says that is partly because the papers now want to get involved during the conception of the shows.

“I think more and more they see themselves wanting to be there when the idea is being thought up so they can actually think alongside us as to how they would run any newspaper game,” he says. He hopes other advertisers, perhaps retailers, might step in to replace the tabloids, encouraging their customers to take part in games at home.

Even if newspapers eventually do come back to TV, the teams selling sponsorship must now replace their millions simply to stand still – which soaks up most of the Cadbury 10m.

Brady admitted publicly last week that “perhaps we’ve failed to get the message into the right place either in clients or agencies”. He told the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers’ sponsorship conference he still gets replies from advertisers to his mailings saying “thank you but our charity budget is fully committed”.

No one can say ITV has not tried. Eighteen months ago, it signed up Millward Brown to provide the tracking research on sponsorship campaigns that advertisers said they needed. And, though some would say this helped secure the Cadbury deal, TV sponsorship still has to make its great leap forward.

But the satellite channels feel happier. Mark Wood of BSkyB, who led the successful campaign to persuade the ITC to relax its rules, says they take almost 20 per cent of sponsorship income with just ten per cent of the viewing – in other words it brings in eight per cent of their total ad revenue, a much higher share than ITV’s.

The fact that the rules are less restrictive for satellite and cable stations helps. But Wood believes an equally significant factor is that on Sky, sponsorship is “not simply riding advertising’s coat tails”. Sky’s research shows sponsorship is seen as more appropriate on Sky than on ITV, commanding a more important role for the brands concerned.

Certainly some people looked askance at the brash credits for Ford’s Monday Night Football when they first leapt out of the screen three years ago – and they would still look out of place. Now, on Sky, they seem unexceptional, which is one reason the new ITC rules are likely to benefit the satellite and cable channels more than the terrestrials.

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