Spinning cash for the big new game show

Forget sponsors. Now TV programmes are being funded by big business, says Meg Carter
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The Independent Online
No prizes for guessing the sponsor of ITV's latest game show, Raise the Roof, which offers a new home as its top prize: the Daily Express and its Sunday sister featured prominently in the opening credits when the series began its 17-week run last Saturday night. But hands up who noticed the show was funded by Express Newspapers, too?

Raise the Roof is one of a new breed: an advertiser-funded programme. Unlike sponsorship, advertiser funding involves an advertiser putting money into the making of a show. They may do so in exchange for rights to sponsor the show or to distribute it abroad. But above all, they do so to be assured a quality programme around which they can advertise. So far, the proportion of a programme's budget subsidised by an advertiser varies deal by deal, though the eventual aim is 50:50 partnership.

"The concept was brought to us by Yorkshire Tyne Tees Television and the production company Action Time," explains Don Gray, Express Newspapers' group circulation and marketing director. "We put money into developing a pilot and had first refusal on sponsorship if the programme became a network series."

It sounds simple enough. But, in fact, advertiser-funded programming is regarded by many as a controversial activity because of the close links it encourages between advertiser and programme.

Even so, discussions between UK broadcasters and major advertisers, including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, BT and Pepsi, are now under way. "Advertisers want to ensure broadcasters can afford to develop strong programmes," says Andrew McCall, managing partner of the broadcasting consultancy The Network. "Advertiser funding offers broadcasters extra funding to do so."

In the Fifties, when Procter & Gamble thought American broadcasters were failing to make programmes that appealed to housewives (see below), the detergent company decided to make its own long-running, romantic dramas that came to be known as "soap operas". Others quickly followed suit. But while advertisers have long been involved in US programme production, British companies were traditionally bound by tighter rules.

The assumption that editorial integrity would be compromised was a major deterrent - until recently. Advertisers are now worried about falling TV audiences. ITV's share of viewing was down year on year from 43.8 to 41.6 per cent in the first half of this year, as viewers turned to BBC1's improved prime-time programming and the new cable and satellite channels.

"Programme quality is under threat," says Malcolm Grant, chief executive of MGA Broadcasting, which advises Unilever on its TV investments. Edwin Sharpe, Unilever's UK media manager, agrees: "With the level of some franchise bids, ITV companies will find it harder to match past levels of investment in programming. Investment in programming offers us the opportunity to work alongside broadcasters to build the audiences that our brands require." Which is why the company last month set up a production development fund for financing new shows. It has also put money into The Shape of Things, a new YTTV series on design.

UK advertisers have been allowed to get involved in production since 1991 when the Independent Television Commission's predecessor, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, published its first sponsorship code. All programmes, bar news and current affairs, can be sponsored so long as advertisers' products do not feature in the programme and the association is declared. Sponsors enjoy on-air credits and can feature the programme in their own off-air marketing. Sponsorship money goes to the broadcaster's sales department.

While advertisers are normally approached after a programme has been made, advertiser funding invariably means involvement at an earlier stage. This enables the advertiser to buy at a competitive edge - with advance notice of programming and storylines up to 18 months ahead of transmission. The money goes straight into that programme - which is why advertiser funding is carefully monitored by the ITC.

Despite such precautions, there is wary criticism. "There are huge dangers. It's dead against the consumer's interests," says Jocelyn Hay, chairman of the consumer group Voice of the Listener and Viewer. Viewers are unable to identify an advertiser-funded programme as easily as they can an advertorial in a magazine, she believes: "The threat is not so much from blatant misinformation as economies with the truth."

Advertiser funding could also narrow the choice of programmes - controversial subjects might not be tackled at all - or influence where a programme appears in the schedule. "At worst, it's a slippery slope where broadcasters relinquish editorial control and simply produce bulk, mediocre programming," says Andrea Wonfor, joint managing director at Granada Television. But, she adds, advertisers are fully aware of the need for quality programming and do not want to jeopardise this.

Even the programme-makers - traditionally those most likely to eschew any contact with commerce - are waking up to the potential of advertiser funding. The Action Time chairman, Stephen Leahy, recently had a new game show knocked back - not because of the concept but because the broadcaster had insufficient funds. "I am now attempting to persuade them to approach an advertiser to get it made," he says. "I want to increase the volume of programmes I can produce."

Economic reality, it seems, will ensure the trend is here to stay. Indeed, the ITC is now considering calls for changes to its sponsorship code to allow advertisers greater on-screen credit. They are doing so at the behest of broadcasters and producers, worried that cash is running out. "We've all got to look ahead to a future when programme funding becomes even more difficult," says Ms Wonfor. "We just can't afford to rule any potential co-funding partnership out."

British TV programmes co-funded by advertisers

Raise the Roof: the game show's pilot was co-funded by Express Newspapers for ITV.

The Shape of Things: a design series

co-funded by Unilever for ITV.

Passengers: a youth show co-funded by Pepsi for international distribution. Broadcast in the UK on Channel 4.

Go Bingo: Procter & Gamble owns the international rights to the format of this show, which, in the UK, is made for ITV.

The Wanderer: an action drama

co-funded by P&G for BSkyB.

Crufts: a programme on the dog show's centenary co-funded by Pedigree Petfoods and seen on BBC 2.

Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy: ITV quiz shows whose development was funded by Unilever, which owns the formats.

Riviera: "Eurosoap" co-funded by Unilever.

Dogs with Dunbar: a pet series co-funded by Spillers for local transmission on Meridian.

IndyCar 93: US motor sports coverage for ITV funded by Texaco.

Pied Piper: an ITV drama starring Peter O'Toole co-funded by P&G.

Shape of the World: a factual series for ITV co-funded by IBM.