Advertiser panic over the imminent demise of the traditional ad break, combined with independent production companies' new-found constitutional muscle in the wake of the Communications Act, has led to a flurry of interest in advertiser-funded programming (AFP), also known as branded content.
As yet, this flurry hasn't crystallised into many hours of broadcast television. The relationship between programme owner, producer, backer and broadcaster is ill-defined and fraught with conflict and, despite a proliferation of digital and satellite channels, there remains a distinct lack of broadcast interest in the medium.
"Branded content is the most talked about and least understood subject in television at the moment," Gary Knight, the head of sponsorship and branded content at ITV Sales, says. "I've got virtually every independent production company at my door saying: 'We've got a great client; we want distribution.'" He points out that ITV already has a business relationship with the vast majority of these clients; a relationship worth £1.6 billion annually. "With all due respect, we don't need an independent production company to come to us with a client to help to ad-fund a series," he says.
Such froideur is not uncommon, particularly among terrestrial broadcasters.
Ofcom regulations are restrictive almost to the point of suffocation.
With no undue prominence and no commercial influence on editorial content, the programme financer is essentially reduced to programme sponsor, with a logo topping and tailing each ad break. "The broadcast sponsorship space, which is primarily what you give a client in ad-funding in this country, is my territory and that has a real cash value to me," Knight says. "I'm not going to give that up unless I think the relationship with the client is right, or I think the net profit and loss is right in terms of what we would pay for the show, and what we would get for the sponsorship."
The cold-shoulder treatment is doing little to dampen the independents' ardour, though, and the advertising landscape is changing, albeit slowly.
TV producer interest in advertisers' wallets has never been keener.
A marked shift in the AFP market has been the rise of a small but growing number of brands that are approaching production companies directly to work on AFP projects. Production budgets have shrunk to a point where production companies are increasingly forced to look to alternative sources for funding. And concerns about the efficacy of "traditional" advertising strategies, combined with a move by some clients away from the sole media-agency relationship towards a more plural, patchwork approach, has seen some clients look beyond their agencies for media strategies.
Endemol UK and Orange have been collaborating on AFP ideas for the past 18 months. The relationship reaches fruition next month with Orange Playlist, a celebrity-based music video-chatshow hybrid that updates Radio 4's Desert Island Discs for the mp3 generation.
But while Orange and Endemol began working together on the show, Orange's media agencies were eventually brought into the process to place a value on the airtime. The majority of successful AFP is still produced in conjunction with either a media or creative agency, a relationship that is usually key to the project.
"My approach has always been to work with the agency that's involved with the brand and position ourselves as having access to the broadcaster," John Nolan, the head of commercial programming at North One, says.
"There's an unavoidable turf war for control of AFP," Nolan adds. "Creative agencies are finding themselves in a position where they can approach media owners; media agencies are finding themselves dealing with content and its creation, and production companies are in a position where they're somewhat empowered because they approach the media owners every day."
Nolan is clear on where he stands in the chain: "We're not a media agency, so we don't have an understanding of the value of media, nor a strategic knowledge of how it's planned. But we do understand engaging entertainment."
One of North One's most recent commissions was the Red Bull Soapbox Challenge for ITV, but it also worked with Leo Burnett on the controversial Heinz-funded five series, Dinner Doctors. The subsequent media furore goes some way to explaining why broadcasters remain sceptical about the benefits of AFP. The series was eventually cleared by an Ofcom inquiry: Heinz made none of the recipes or ingredients used in the show. But mud sticks, and AFP was dragged through it while the controversy raged.
"From a regulatory point of view, you need to be able to demonstrate some distance," Nolan says.
Bill Orde, the managing director of Broadcast Marketing, which produces Duracell Explorations for the National Geographic Channel, takes a different stance. "Historically, we've done as much as we can ourselves - that means we create the concept and go straight to the client." What happens next depends on the client, "but the successful ones have taken the decision themselves".
His position on AFP and where the money is in the venture is a clear lesson to the many production companies vying for advertiser funding.
In the future, Broadcast Marketing will subcontract production to other independents, leaving the company to manage the relationships with both clients and broadcasters. "I'm very happy to be looked at as an agency," Orde says. "I think that most production companies agree that the margin in production is hard-earned. The money's in the media side - that's why you see very wealthy advertising agencies and very few production companies that are doing really well."
Back at ITV, Knight remains sceptical of the market for AFP and its value to the independent production sector. "Most of the deals are in non-primetime, non- high-rating stock," he says. "Primetime is too expensive - the cost of programming is never going to be the same as the cost of a straightforward media buy." He also cautions advertisers against entering AFP as a knee-jerk reaction to changes in the broadcast landscape.
"I always ask my clients why they want to get involved in programme-making," he says. "The best brains in the business can work on a show. We'll spend a year to 18 months on it and then we put the show out in good faith and for some reason people don't watch it and don't like it. We can't guarantee a hit. It's a high-risk strategy. You've got to have clear and defined reasons for why you're doing it."