Branded-content can provide an alternative source of funding for TV producers. Brendan Swift looks at the possibilities and pitfalls in this extended article from the August issue of INSIDEFILM magazine

The Willoughby Bros spent some three years developing a TV show about classic cars. But it was only after the production house approached car insurer Shannons – which suggested tweaking the concept so that it could also promote its auction business – that it gained the support of a broadcaster.

“It means, of course, that it does flavour the program because you have to pay regard to your sponsors,” one of the show’s producers, Nick Hart, says. “Honestly, I don’t know if a show about classic cars [in Australia] would get up if you didn’t have sponsored content.”

It is just one of an increasing number of programs on both free-to-air and subscription television that are being fully-funded by advertisers, such as popular Ten Network cooking program Ready Steady Cook.

It was adapted from the long-running BBC program (which featured no brand sponsorship) almost five years ago in a complex deal, according to former Ten Network executive Brian Gallagher.

“It required co-operation from the rights holders, the broadcaster and the advertiser – everybody had to give something up to get the show created,” he says.

Gallagher left the Ten Network in 2005 and founded Full Circle, which creates content and advertiser-funded programming. He estimates the level of advertiser spend in the branded-content sector has increased from about $15 million to almost $50 million over the past five years but warns that the expected surge in work for the production sector has not eventuated because of the small size of the local market.

“There are a lot of fixed costs and a lot of vested interests for the broadcaster, the advertiser and the producer. That triumvirate is very difficult to manage and is not ideal. In general it works better in the subscription TV environment than the free to air environment.”

A scene from Ready Steady Cook

Networks’ ratings focus can lead to shows being pulled quickly if they do not capture public attention, leaving sponsors initial timeslot expectations in disarray. Meanwhile sponsors will almost certainly be asked to advertise – boosting the network’s revenues – despite already paying for production.

“We absolutely do not pursue prime time relationships with networks – I don’t have the time for the grief,” Gallagher says.

Afternoon time slots and weekends have proved the most popular for branded-content shows, with only a few branded-content programs make the leap to prime time where the stakes are considerably higher.

“If I’m trying to do a brand-funded program I’m not necessarily best served by trying to create ratings … you are massaging the relationship between the content, the audience and the brand in an appropriate manner,” he says.

That balancing act can be a difficult one to manage, particularly for producers keen to preserve their creative vision while seamlessly promoting sponsors in the name of entertainment.

“We had a couple of situations where we went one way and then realised ‘No, we have to keep it real’,” Hart says.

“In fact, there was a point where we favoured one of our sponsors in one episode and in fact they didn’t want that, they wanted us to show it more real. I think that’s something you learn as you go and balance comes from experience.”

Renegade Films director of development Peter Bain Hogg says the company has dabbled in the branded content sector but has knocked back sponsorship for its SBS comedy Wilfred and trivia show RocKwiz.

“We’ve had a lot of approaches to integrate brands into both of those shows but we’ve resisted them in every case to retain the brand integrity and also they are commissioned by the network – we don’t need the advertising or sponsorship to do it.”

However, Renegade has worked with RocKWiz sponsor Coopers in other areas, such as producing a jointly branded CD, recently distributed with Coopers’ slabs of beer.

Willoughby Bros’ Chrome series has received interest from other potential sponsors, such as car customising businesses and retail catering retail companies, and the company hopes to produce a second series.

“For us it was an exercise in proving we could do it – we haven’t made a lot of money, put it that way,” Hart says.

It also intends to sell the initial six-week series, which aired between the Seven Network’s coverage of the V8 Supercar Championship, on DVD and find overseas buyers for the format.

Few local feature films have so aggressively explored advertiser partnerships as the TV sector although Baz Luhrmann’s Australia pushed the boundaries with a plethora of deals which included Qantas, Telstra, BigPond, Coopers, Jacob’s Creek and RM Williams.

However, most are now dabbling in the field. Upcoming Australian feature comedy Subdivision has held partnership talks with several companies, including in the building industry such as Bunnings, in an effort to appeal to the film’s ‘blokey’ demographic.

And while Hollywood indie Winged Creatures relied on several product placement sponsors, director Rowan Woods says the opportunities for funding features via sponsorship remain slim.

“There’s a dribble of money that’s available in that regard in American films and TV – it’s not a significant money factor,” he says. “The equation for financing independent films outside of the studio system is pretty much the same here as it is there.”

Check out INSIDEFILM’s special on marketing and merchandising in the August issue.

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