Broadcasters are blurring the boundaries between TV programmes and advertising as they entice brands into closer partnerships with their shows.
Through product placement deals, brand partnerships and advertiser-funded programming (AFP), cash-strapped TV stations are looking to go beyond traditional spot advertising and prise greater investment from brands. Some brand owners are dipping their toes in the water, while others are waiting to evaluate the cost effectiveness of branded TV content, compared with spot advertising.
The push into branded content comes after the relaxation of rules, since 28 February, governing product placement on TV, and the introduction of rules that allow TV presenters to front ads that run during programmes in which they appear.
Some argue that the looser product-placement regulations will boost advertiser-funded programming. Vicky Kell, Channel 4 business manager for product placement and AFP, predicts that brands will be more interested in funding shows if they can showcase their products in them. Channel 4 broadcast 250 hours of programming paid for by advertisers last year, and Kell expects this to increase.
This year, such programming includes Style the Nation, funded by New Look, and TV Book Club, funded by Specsavers. A prime-time series called Future Family, paid for by E.ON, is due to launch soon.
In addition, Channel 4 is in talks with several brands about running product placements on Hollyoaks, in deals thought to be worth up to £12m. Kell remains cautious, though. 'The devil is in the detail for these product-placement deals. No one has any proof of how it works in the UK,' she says. 'There is a lot of learning from the US, but it is pretty unproven in this country. We are keen to get something in to Hollyoaks and to prove its worth.'
Channel 5 is aggressively promoting cross-media partnerships with brands after its acquisition by Richard Desmond's Northern & Shell (N&S). For this year's Celebrity Big Brother, the broadcaster created brand deals across the N&S portfolio, including the Daily Express, Daily Star and OK! magazine. Channel 5 sales director Nick Bampton points to Domino's Pizza's sponsorship of Big Brother and Disney's promotion of the release of Fright Night within the same show; both deals were linked across N&S titles.
'To generate a real point of difference in our relationships with advertisers, we are pushing things further than just selling ad space; it is how you link the editorial into the commercial environment that is important,' he says. Bampton also claims that TV advertising is now so commoditised that the only way to add value is through meshing it with editorial.
Some experts are sceptical that the revised rules will make much difference. 'This is not the panacea that people think it is,' says one media buyer. Mark Rosenegk, vice-president of brand partnerships UK at FreemantleMedia Enterprises, adds that he has not seen a single programme bearing the PP logo, denoting product placement.
'I don't think advertisers will be jumping at the opportunities for advertiser-funded programming,' he says. 'They are not looking for reasons to make TV programmes.' He contends, however, that branded content deals can work for companies, provided they are part of a well-thought-through strategy.
The rules still prohibit many kinds of activity. Alcohol and junk food brands, for example, cannot use product placement. There are also tough regulations on 'undue prominence' of placements, ruling out the kind of deals happening in the US, where, for example, American Idol judges drink from Coca-Cola-branded cups.
Mark Boyd, founder of TV production agency Gravity Road, stresses the difficulties of creating powerful partnerships between brands and programmes. 'We have a mature market in the UK,' he says.
'For the big stations, the incremental revenue from product placement pales into insignificance compared with the needs of viewers. Upsetting them is a far greater commercial risk than upsetting advertisers.' He predicts, however, that there will be more branded-content deals beyond the fields of music and sports.
So how risky is branded content on TV, given that the editorial is controlled ultimately by the broadcasters? Chantal Rickards, head of branded content at MEC, argues that much depends on marketers having a clear idea of what they want to get out of a deal. 'You need research at the beginning and the end, so everyone can see how you have moved from x to y,' she says.
Rickards adds that funding a series of programmes can work out cheaper than buying a premium ad slot in the middle of flagship shows such as The X Factor.
ITV, the biggest commercial broadcaster in the UK, has forged several partnerships and deals. It ran the first product placement deal under the revised rules, for Nestle's Dolce Gusto coffee machine, during This Morning in February, while Marks & Spencer is fashion partner for the latest series of The X Factor, though this deal is for a presence on the web, not the show.
The idea is to tap into dual-screen activity, as people watch TV while using laptops, tablets or smartphones. Dual-screen is becoming the focus of increasing activity for brands, with Heineken getting involved via its StarPlayer football game, where viewers use smartphones or laptops to answer questions about likely outcomes during Champions League matches.
According to Neil Osborne, founder of advertiser-funded programming agency A Brand Apart, a big advantage of the AFP route is when the brand owner develops a show that airs in many countries. This can be far more cost-effective than running TV ads across all those markets.
Branded content on TV has been hyped-up for years, but generally has been confined to smaller digital channels. With the relaxation of product placement rules, more major brands and broadcasters may get involved. These are still early days, however, and much will rest on the success of the programmes and placements launched over the next year.
SKILLICIOUS/ROBINSONS FRUIT SHOOT H20
Skillicious, a kids programme on CiTV, is funded by Robinsons Fruit Shoot H20 and was created by the brand's ad agency, Bartle Bogle Hegarty. It was commissioned for a second series this summer and suggests activities for children, covering everything from BMX biking to 'worm-charming'. Skillicious is part of a wider campaign from Britvic, using Robinsons Fruit Shoot H20 to encourage kids to be active. The property is being launched abroad and there are plans to introduce merchandising.
The L'Oreal-owned brand ran campaigns in September 2010 and February 2011 on Channel 4, taking advantage of changes to the BCAP code allowing TV presenters to appear in ads during programmes in which they appear.
Jameela Jamil, the presenter of Channel 4's T4 youth strand, fronted the ads, which focused on different looks that could be created using Maybelline products.
Research showed that three-quarters of viewers recalling the campaign said it stood out from other ads and that they preferred the concept to the average TV ad.
Purchase consideration doubled among non-users. Karen Jones, marketing director of Maybelline UK, says: 'We generated stronger unit growth than we had all year, which suggests we have recruited consumers to the brand.'
NEW LOOK/STYLE THE NATION, CHANNEL 4
New Look funded the Style the Nation series, where contestants competed to create the most lively street fashions, with the winner offered a job as a stylist at the fashion retailer.
The show had a 'second screen' element, with viewers able to dress their own models online and vote for contestants. Channel 4 says that the show garnered 95,000 page views on the style section of its website, with 40,000 visits in the first month the programme aired. About 300,000 products were tried out via the site, and 5000 outfits were submitted. The average time spent on the site was 10 minutes.
FRIGHT NIGHT/CELEBRITY BB
Celebrity Big Brother partnered Disney for the release of comedy horror film Fright Night, with a screening of the film in the Big Brother house for inmates who completed a task. A nationwide competition was run, with six winners joining the housemates for the exclusive screening.
Analysis by media agency Carat, which brokered the deal, tracked the number of searches for Fright Night during the programme. The research found that searches peaked in the hours that Celebrity Big Brother was screened, and jumped 364% in the hour that the episode containing the Fright Night screening was aired.