MEDIA: Forum - A recipe for more advertiser-funded TV?

The ITC gave Heinz the benefit of the doubt in the Dinner Doctors affair. The right decision, Alasdair Reid wonders.

Take one cookery and nutrition programme with the less-than-inspired title of Dinner Doctors, aimed at hard-pressed mums. Persuade a tinned-food company such as Heinz to fund it. Bring to the boil and simmer gently.

Result? The appearance of one or two Heinz products on screen as the series unfolds.

Last week, the Independent Television Commission gave its ruling on whether the programme, which ran on five on each weekday morning for two weeks back in June, broke the ITC sponsorship code. As part of its deliberations, the commission considered a vigorous case for the defence made by five's programming executives - they claimed that only a small percentage of the ingredients used on the series were actually Heinz products; and they provided evidence that, although the advertiser had stumped up the cash to make the series, Heinz had no involvement whatsoever in the commissioning and editorial process.

The ITC verdict: no code violation. Not guilty. At this stage, we add the pinch of salt, don't we? And arguably the ITC made life even more difficult for itself by admitting that it came within a gnat's whisker of ruling the other way. Has the ITC been cowardly or gullible and will advertisers now see this as a green light to push the boundaries of the code?

Chris Harrison, the managing director of Spring London, the specialist agency used by Heinz to cook up the project, declined to comment. However, Lawrence Munday, the joint managing director of a rival content marketing agency, Drum PHD, is not entirely happy with the message the whole episode sends to the rest of the industry. He states: "It's not the sort of programming that's going to set the world alight. It's exactly the type of programming that attracts the wrong sort of attention - and you might argue that making a programme about how to cook with tinned food backed by Heinz is always going to be close to the knuckle. It's unfortunate."

Munday says that too many people are still thinking along short-term, tactical lines when they look at advertiser-funded programming opportunities.

He adds: "Look instead at what an advertiser such as Nokia is doing with the Fashion House programme it is funding - it is much more about aligning yourself with a lifestyle."

Bob Wootton, the director of media and advertising affairs at the ISBA, takes a more liberal view.

He says we must respect the ITC decision - and you can hardly argue that this is a green light for future activity because nothing in the ITC code has changed. He says: "There will be people who are not happy with that ruling but the fact remains that, for anyone contemplating advertising-funded programming, the hurdles remain considerable."

He draws an analogy with programme sponsorship. "Our attitudes to sponsorship have evolved. It's been with us for ten years now and its history is not exactly littered with infringements," he maintains.

And what of media owners? Many, especially those at the leading edge of the digital multi-channel, multi-platform world, have been arguing for years that the broadcast economy has to evolve new funding models.

Do they feel dismayed that even the simplest of forays into this area seems to attract such controversy?

Paul Curtis, the managing director of Viacom Brand Solutions, points out that we are moving towards an era of self-regulation. "As we do, I am sure that media owners will continue to behave responsibly in relation to their editorial content because it relates to their commercial interests."

Curtis believes that ultimately the market will be regulated by market forces. If advertisers and broadcasters alienate viewers, the viewers will move elsewhere.

Peter Edwards, the managing director of Starcom Motive (Heinz's media planning and buying agency), says: "In this (Heinz) case we're talking about a client investigating what works and what doesn't. We should also acknowledge that consumers are more savvy than people give them credit for."

Edwards accepts that for some advertisers it may be appropriate to evolve a more sophisticated brand-orientated strategy where advertiser-funded programming is concerned. But FMCG advertisers want to shift product.

He states: "That's the dilemma here, that's the challenge. Also, we shouldn't underestimate the difficulties. It's easy to put it in a presentation to a client - but the reality is that making good-quality programming that people will want to watch is very hard. Heinz will have learned a lot from this."

"One of the problems is that television production companies struggle to understand why there might be a need to think about the sponsorship guidelines. They may not understand that there might be a need to have a conversation or two with the ITC prior to broadcast."

- Lawrence Munday joint managing director, Drum PHD

"The thing that advertisers will regard as a green light will be a perception that this type of commercial communication is effective. But our position has been consistent - advertisers should be allowed more freedom to communicate responsibly."

- Bob Wootton director, ISBA

"It is unlikely that media owners would compromise their own brand values by blatant advertising within the context of programmes. Five has pushed the boundaries with Heinz and I hope this provokes more brand owners to consider this avenue."

- Paul Curtis managing director, Viacom Brand Solutions

"The ITC says this (Heinz initiative) comes just under the wire, but the advertiser involvement wasn't inappropriate. It was a show about 21st-century living and healthy eating and it was appropriate for Heinz to be involved. If you make it relevant, it will work."

- Peter Edwards managing director, Starcom Motive.

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