Advertiser-funded TV starts to take off

Brands and media owners have endured something of a chequered past when it comes to advertiser-funded programming (AFP) but, following a raft of new deals, some are predicting that 2008 could be the year it finally comes of age.

ITV has sealed two deals for its early evening Sunday schedule. One, a partnership with Pedigree, marks the first time a brand has fully funded a series (MW last week). Dog Rescue has been developed with and produced by ITV Productions.

ITV is also airing the second series of Beat: Life on the Street, funded by COI, and is in talks with 30 other brands, including retailers and telecoms companies.

ITV client services director Samantha Wilson says the deals are indicative of the way the broadcaster is reaching out to brands and creating partnerships at the outset of a project in order to increase its AFP output.

Proof of ITV’s belief in AFP came with its appointment of advertiser development director Nicky Buss from WPP’s Research International 18 months ago.

Bingo_lottoMeanwhile, Virgin Media Television (VMTV) has also announced a number of deals, including one “branded content” slot – BingoLotto, a TV game show aired on Virgin 1 and Challenge for Swedish gaming company IGS (MW last week). Sales house Viacom Brand Solutions (VBS) has also run a number of branded content slots for advertisers and is expected to do more.

Primetime slots

VMTV controller of commercial partnerships Clare Heys says AFP is becoming key to its strategy, although it opts for co-funded rather than fully-funded partnerships, arguing that digital channels must approach things differently to the terrestrial ITV. She wants her division to “set the agenda” on AFP and has set aside two primetime spots, one on Living and one on Virgin 1, in the autumn schedule for AFP shows.

The practice of AFP is nothing new. Previous efforts include the Orange Playlist, Pepsi Chart Show on Five and Granada’s The Real DIY Show, financed by B&Q, but AFP has been slow to take off in Britain.

One reason, says one media buyer, has been the “chasm” in expectations from both sides. The source claims advertisers regarded AFP as an advertising rather than editorial opportunity, and broadcasters often did not do enough to educate and build partnerships.

Another is that the UK’s stringent advertiser rules have put off all but the keenest brands, although relaxation is expected under the new EU Audiovisual Media Services Without Frontiers directive, which gives member states the opportunity to provide limited product placement.

Under current Ofcom regulations, an advertiser cannot affect the editorial content of the programmes. AFP can be sponsored but references to the advertiser or product placement is prohibited. Should Ofcom decide to allow such measures, AFP would instantly become a more valuable commodity.

But Thinkbox chief executive Tess Alps warns: “Content will always be king.” She adds that any programme likely to lose viewers risks damaging the channel brand and detracting from its biggest revenue stream: spot advertising.

Alps believes that, far from the internet and digital media “killing” TV, it has opened brands’ eyes to content creation. “The world is becoming televisual,” she says, adding that brands are building a wealth of content and looking for ways to exploit it across platforms.

A chance to give

Wilson expects AFP to further enable brands to set out their corporate social responsibility stalls. AFP also echoes the approach advertisers are taking to social networking, looking to “give” the consumer something back rather than pushing ads at them.

So although AFP is unlikely to be the sole answer to broadcasters’ funding woes, it does give them another tool with which to tempt advertisers increasingly looking at content.

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