Although advertiser-funded programming (AFP) has been around for years, recent weeks have seen a raft of high-end, creative advertisers move into the medium. It emerged last week that Orange was joining the ranks of BMW and Audi to move its communication into the realms of branded content.
The Orange venture, launching next month, looks set to raise the profile of the medium.
Called Orange Playlist, it is scheduled for mainstream, terrestrial TV and will be shown on ITV1, rather than tucked away on a cable channel.
It is designed to hit a wide audience and will also air on ITV2, as well as in peaktime slots on the Viacom music channels, VH1 and TMF.
Additionally, it's a coup for Orange to have got its brand name into the programme title and, after some Ofcom wrangling, it has become the first brand, outside event programming, to appear in an ITV programme name.
Orange Playlist - designed as a TV take on the long-running Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs - is being positioned as an extension of Orange's ongoing tie-up with music and entertainment.
The format will also include an interactive run-down of the top fives in the singles, download and ringtone charts, designed to provide Orange and ITV with an additional revenue stream.
"AFPs have to work on more levels than just on-air branding and need to be built to exploit different areas. The download element here works to recoup the initial investment," Cody Hogarth, the head of commercial partnerships at Initial, the Endemol arm that worked on the project, says.
So, how did the Orange venture get off the ground?
It began when Orange's experiential marketing agency, Cake, suggested that branded content was a good way to present Orange's music communications strategy. Initial, which specialises in music and live events, was brought in and developed the Playlist concept. A raft of presentations to TV channels and several months in production later, the final stages are now being played out.
It may sound simple, but Mark Boyd, the director of content at Bartle Bogle Hegarty, says otherwise: "It's an incredibly time-intensive, all-involving process with risks all along the way. It's not just a case of having an idea and then deciding to get it on TV - it's much harder than that."
He points particularly to the issue of getting the programme idea past "the airtime gate-keepers" - the commissioners. "The challenge is to get them to buy into the business model and then to sell you the airtime and the channel you want," he says.
When channels are bombarded with around 1,000 programme ideas a week, this is no mean feat.
However, despite the potential pressures and problems, the AFP phenomenon is gaining momentum in a diversifying communications market.
"There's pressure on the 30-second spot as consumers are opting out of watching ads," Steve Henry, the creative director of HHCL/Red Cell, says. "We need to look at new formats whether this be sponsorship idents or longer programmes."
The clutter in ad breaks means brands must do something different to achieve standout. Henry adds: "TV is an emotional and powerful medium and you can engage with consumers on an emotional level more on TV, whether in 30 seconds or 30 minutes. AFPs give the opportunity to create real links and loyalties between consumers and marketers."
However, Stef Calcraft a partner at Orange's advertising agency, Mother, warns: "The only reason to venture into AFP is if you have a great idea. The programme will live or die on this. The fact that AFP is currently in vogue as a new way for brands to express themselves is irrelevant."
The "great idea" must be relevant to the brand. He adds: "The brand must inspire the programme idea. If the programme idea itself can be easily divorced from the brand, then you have nothing more than sponsorship."
The creative challenge is to make something that viewers will genuinely want to watch. As Boyd says: "We're all waiting for the poster boy AFP that is better than a regular programme."
However, even when this elusive AFP blockbuster does arrive, Boyd is quick to assert that there is little chance that AFPs will ever take precedence over the traditional 30- second slot.
"There are always going to be brands that need communications messages relevant to traditional media. AFPs are part of the future but form an expansion of communications rather than the replacement of TV advertising," he says.
THE STORY SO FAR
December 2003 - Orange and Cake meet with Initial to discuss a brief, following Cake's recommendation that Orange invests in AFP.
December-February 2004 - Initial discusses outline deal, outline creative treatment and outline strategy for broadcast. Creative treatment and strategy agreed by Orange.
March 2004 - Series is budgeted and then pitched to broadcasters. ITV and Viacom agree in principle to take the series.
April-August 2004 - Initial agrees contract with Orange; production commences.
End of September 2004 - On air.