Media: Paid for by the makers of . . .: Advertisers are starting to move into TV production, says Meg Carter

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It is not only the Independent Television Commission that is concerned about the quality of programmes on the commercial network; advertisers are growing increasingly worried about it, too. Most of the top 300 spenders are disappointed with ITV, according to a survey by Media Audits.

Many are already assessing new ways to get better value for money. One possibility is for advertisers to involve themselves directly in programme production. In the Fifties, when Procter & Gamble (P&G) thought that American broadcasters were failing to make programmes that appealed to housewives, the detergent company started to make its own - long-running romantic dramas that came to be known as soap operas. Others followed suit.

While advertisers have been closely involved in US programme production for many years, British companies were traditionally bound by tighter rules. The assumption that editorial integrity would be compromised was a major deterrent - until recently.

Now, financial pressures have persuaded both cash-stretched broadcasters and advertisers to court a variety of other commercial partnerships. The latest of these involves P&G, which is negotiating to sell Go Bingo, a game show it owns, to ITV.

UK advertisers have been allowed to become involved in production since 1991, when the Independent Broadcasting Authority (the ITC's predecessor) published its first sponsorship code. Programme sponsorship now generates more than pounds 20m a year for ITV alone.

The usual procedure is for advertisers to be approached after a programme has been made, to pay to associate themselves with it through on-air credits and off-air marketing. Advertiser funding, however, invariably means advertisers becoming involved at an early stage - sometimes before a programme has even been commissioned.

This gives them a competitive edge and notice of storylines up to 18 months ahead of transmission. It is allowed, so long as the advertiser's products do not feature in the programme and the association is clearly labelled on screen.

Unilever has funded quiz shows - notably Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, and a 'Euro-soap', Riviera, which cost pounds 25m to make. Granada Television produced Pied Piper - a drama featuring Peter O'Toole co-funded by P&G, and Shape of the World, a factual series co-funded by IBM. ITV has also shown a Tina Turner special funded by Pepsi.

Last year, Texaco paid for production of the IndyCar '93 series. More recently Spillers, the pet food company, co-funded Dogs with Dunbar, a factual series produced for Meridian Broadcasting. Last month it was revealed that P&G has invested pounds 6.5m in The Wanderer a new action drama series co-produced by Yorkshire Television for BSkyB.

But not everyone supports these moves. Some fear such early - and close - involvement in production means there is a danger that advertisers can influence content, at worst turning progammes into advertorials. 'It's not so much blatant misinformation as economies with the truth,' says Jocelyn Hay, chairman of consumer group Voice of the Listener and Viewer. And, she says, it could narrow choice of programmes: controversial subjects might not be tackled at all.

Advertising agencies dismiss such fears. 'The suspicion that we want to stick our products in programming is totally wrong,' says Adam Stanhope, chief executive of Initiative Media Programming, a division of that advertising group Interpublic. 'We want what broadcasters want, good programming that people want to watch.'

It is not just the advertisers who are eager to develop such relationships. Last summer Granada published Unlocking the Power of Television - a guide for advertisers wanting to 'do more than just buy airtime'. Some TV companies now argue that advertiser funding can mean that good programmes are made that might otherwise be too costly.

'Spillers' involvement in Dogs with Dunbar undoubtedly ensured that a good-quality programme on pets actually made it on screen,' says Tim Brady, sponsorship controller for Meridian. 'And Spillers had absolutely no involvement with the content.'

Advertisers are undoubtedly worried that, with new channels being launched, there will not be enough conventional advertising revenue to fund good programming - a worry that seems to have been confirmed by last week's critical ITC report on the network schedule.

'There is a widely held fear that the decline in ITV audiences is due to a decline in the quality and volume of the home-produced material broadcasters can afford,' says Malcolm Grant, chief executive of the sponsorship consultancy MGA. 'Advertiser funding could overcome this. It's less about getting your product on screen, more about protecting the system.'

But such fine sentiments do not convince everyone. Stewart Butterfield, Channel 4's director of sales and marketing, says: 'Relying on this sort of funding could lead to an advertiser's presence influencing not only whether a programme gets made but where it ends up in the schedule.'

But while ITV companies may not want to compromise their programming-making policies in order to attract advertisers' investment, soon they may have little choice.