It was an upfront week in New York that featured the usual excess: marching bands, confetti, stars and tables groaning with sushi. The networks went out of their way to tell advertisers they are willing to work with them to strike deals that make sense in an era of TV when digital technologies are affecting how viewers see commercials.
That’s the right attitude, but networks need to be cautious about inviting sponsors’ noses under the tent during the creative process of developing shows.
Going into the upfront presentations, TV networks felt relatively strong. They had enjoyed stronger-than-expected sales of ad spots close to airtime in the scatter market. They had a year of digital distribution on the Web and mobile gadgets under their belts. They were close to figuring out which ratings standards they would use to negotiate ad deals.
But all isn’t well in TV land. About 2.5 million fewer viewers are tuning in this year than last-at least in ways that are readily measured by Nielsen. And, of course, there is commercial skipping using digital video recorders, and a generation of kids growing up on YouTube.
In a market experiencing seismic changes, it’s natural for network executives to try to shore up revenue any way they can. With commercial skipping now a part of life, product integration and program sponsorships provide advertisers a way to get in front of audiences without risking an ignominious fast-forward.
To make product integrations work, of course, shows must be produced with the advertisers’ goods in mind. But execution is everything. As illustrated by the huge percentage of flops that hit the airwaves each year, telling a good tale on TV is difficult. It can grow more difficult if storylines are twisted to accommodate a product placement that isn’t suited to the script.
In the end, it’s the content that matters in TV. A program must have either the artistic merit to draw an audience or a catchy hook that audiences buy into. Tampering with the content to drum up revenue can undercut the networks’ primary goal-a successful show that makes money-if executed with a ham fist.
We encourage network executives to lend a sensitive ear to writers and producers when they protest that a proposed product placement or sponsorship won’t work on a show. After all, those creative artists are the ones coming up with the content that makes advertising work.