Media Forum: Is sponsorship revolutionised?

Will new TV sponsorship rules be a big deal for broadcasters, Alasdair Reid asks.

With Ofcom's announcement last week, the broadcast sponsorship revolution is all but complete. Sponsorship of television programmes in the UK was first allowed under the Broadcasting Act of 1990, but was heavily restricted in terms of what advertisers could say and where they could say it.

There's been a slow but sure move towards ever-greater liberalisation across the past decade. Until last week, however, one last bastion remained - advertisers weren't allowed to sponsor whole TV channels. Well, now they are, give or take a few obvious restrictions - for instance, alcohol brands are still banned from sponsoring children's programming; and gambling companies are still forbidden to target those under 18.

Existing broadcasters will be unable to change the names of the channels to include a sponsor's name; and news channels, too, will remain off limits - though channels that broadcast short hourly news bulletins are very definitely now in play.

We may not see major established networks hunting for channel sponsors, but their digital spin-off brands will surely be keen to look at this and a myriad of channels in the digital domain will be queuing up to find partners.

But will advertisers just spread their budgets more thinly? Or will they derive new sponsorship budgets to take advantage of this new opportunity?

The latter, Gary Knight, the brand partnerships director at ITV Sales, insists - though he agrees that this might not be for the likes of ITV1. That would involve such a high-profile deal that it would compromise existing landmark sponsorship deals on the channel. "It will be of interest to channels that may not have many individual high-rating programmes but whose overall channel ratings are decent," he argues.

Knight thinks the impact will be evolutionary, with advertisers initially taking advantage of increased flexibility to sponsor programming strands and themes or events, like, say, Valentine's Day. "At Christmas, we had Rennie sponsoring programmes that weren't already sponsored by other advertisers and that worked very well," he says. "I think we'll see more of that. People will be able to look at doing different sorts of deals in different ways."

Bob Wootton, the director of media and advertising at ISBA, isn't quite so gung-ho. He welcomes any regulatory change that offers more choice to advertisers, but he argues that channel sponsorship will not be all that qualitatively different to the existing "big" sponsorship opportunities.

"Sponsoring a channel is the sort of thing that will appeal to the few rather than the many. We're looking at advertisers who are prepared to commit to sponsorships on a sustainable basis. It's a commitment akin to the one you have to make when, say, you sponsor a channel's weather reports. It would do no-one any good if the sponsor of a strand like that changed every few months and I think it would be the same for channel sponsorship. But it will be attractive to advertisers who want to convey a simple, but targeted, message."

Tom George, the managing director of Mediaedge:cia, is slightly more upbeat, however. He explains: "The key communication challenge for most advertisers is making the right connections with their potential customers against a backdrop of a fragmented and cluttered media environment. It's not difficult to see that the prospect of sponsoring a whole channel has the potential to make an impact. That said, it's difficult to imagine the larger channels foregoing their existing sponsorship relationships across a large raft of advertisers."

Grant Millar, the joint managing director of Vizeum, agrees this must be seen as a great opportunity for channels focusing on relatively narrow genres of programming. "There's scope for niche broadcasters to carve out additional revenues while advertisers and agencies get greater opportunities to find broader marriages of content, mindset, brand and proposition," he says.

But clutter may become an even greater issue - and he believes there are other more subtle pitfalls, too. He concludes: "Some of the best sponsorship results I have seen came from tiny elements of a headline deal or from smaller, tighter matches of interactive content with highly motivated audiences. I fear, however, that the new regulations could lead to a blunter approach to sponsorship, where cruder, less salient strategies and executions are employed across different properties under a single channel."

YES - GARY KNIGHT, BRAND PARTNERSHIPS DIRECTOR, ITV SALES

"I'm sure this will create extra money for sponsorship. It will create a lot more strategic opportunities for advertisers and will add a couple of new dimensions. It enhances the message that sponsorship is increasingly relevant and pertinent."

NO - BOB WOOTTON, DIRECTOR OF MEDIA AND ADVERTISING, ISBA

"This is an appropriate lightening of regulations and it will have subtle but growing implications for the broadcast economy but I don't think broadcasters can look at this as being the next big thing riding to their rescue."

YES - TOM GEORGE, MANAGING DIRECTOR MEDIAEDGE:CIA

"It could mean extra revenue for some channels. We've all been involved in great programme sponsorship proposals from smaller channels that have worked really hard to satisfy a client's communication objectives - only to be rejected because the audiences involved are too small to make a difference."

MAYBE - GRANT MILLAR, JOINT MANAGING DIRECTOR, VIZEUM

"If the latest changes lead to an increased understanding of how sponsorship works - and therefore how it can be executed - then that is a good thing. The biggest test will be in creative execution. This is a major opportunity for media owner creatives to step-up to the plate."

YES - GARY KNIGHT, BRAND PARTNERSHIPS DIRECTOR, ITV SALES

"This will create extra money for sponsorship. It will create more strategic opportunities for advertisers and will add a couple of new dimensions. It enhances the message that sponsorship is increasingly relevant."

NO - BOB WOOTTON, DIRECTOR OF MEDIA AND ADVERTISING, ISBA

"It's an appropriate lightening of regulations and it will have subtle, but growing implications for the broadcast economy, but I don't think broadcasters can look at this as being the next big thing riding to their rescue."

YES - Tom George, managing director, Mediaedge:cia

"It could mean extra revenue for some channels. We've all been involved in proposals from smaller channels that have worked hard to satisfy a client's objectives - only to be rejected because the audiences involved are too small."

MAYBE - GRANT MILLAR, JOINT MANAGING DIRECTOR, VIZEUM

"If the changes lead to increased understanding of how sponsorship works, that's a good thing. The biggest test will be in execution. This is a major opportunity for media owner creatives to step up to the plate."

Got a view? E-mail us at campaign@haynet.com

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