The final season of “The Shield”—a show almost no major advertiser would touch when it debuted on FX in 2002—is being sponsored by Anheuser-Busch.
The King of Beers was among the first marketers to embrace the police drama, which set the standard for the kind of edgy original programming now attracting viewers and ad dollars to basic cable.
Anheuser-Busch is one of FX’s biggest sponsors, spending between $5 million and $10 million annually on the cable network. It will be presenting the first three episodes of season seven of “The Shield” with limited commercial interruption, as well as the three episodes leading up to the finale. There won’t be any spots in those episodes for approximately the first 20 minutes.
The brewer will be mentioned in a hail of FX promos urging viewers to tune in, beginning about 10 days before the Sept. 2 season premiere.
FX has created a series of montages recapping previous seasons of the series for Anheuser-Busch to sponsor. Those recaps, designed to refresh the memories of fans and help lapsed viewers catch up, will appear on Bud.TV, FX.com, Hulu.com and other Web sites, as well as on FX.
“I’m really pleased that the final season of this great show is going to be sponsored by Bud,” said John Landgraf, president of FX. “I think Budweiser is wisely recognizing that their consumers are not just casual viewers of ‘The Shield,’ but genuine fans.”
When it sponsored “The Shield” in its first season, Anheuser-Busch was in a decided minority.
While the show put FX on the map, winning Emmys, Peabodys and other awards, sponsors were slow to embrace a series that is built around a morally ambiguous antihero who shoots a fellow police officer in the pilot; the show also contains numerous scenes of violence and sex.
“We were talking maybe 30% sellout that first year,” said Michael Brochstein, senior VP of national ad sales at FX. “Now it’s wall-to-wall. We can’t hold on to the [ad] units.”
While there are some advertisers that still won’t buy ad time in “The Shield,” or in some of FX’s other edgy original series aimed at adult viewers, including its big hits “Nip/Tuck” and “Rescue Me,” “the number who do keeps going up and up,” Mr. Brochstein said.
FX shows “The Shield,” “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and the network’s newest offering, “Sons of Anarchy,” are all sold out in September.
Rates have jumped as well, with 30-second spots on “The Shield” costing $80,000 to $100,000.
“We get some of the highest prices on cable,” Mr. Brochstein said.
What gets shown on TV, and what advertisers are willing to support, has changed over the years.
“I think back to my days when I was at ABC, when we had ‘NYPD Blue.’ In the first season, nobody wanted to run in it,” recalled Shari Cohen, co-president for national broadcast at media buyer MindShare.
The show won critical acclaim, awards and sizable ratings, and advertisers started testing the waters.
“With each successive year, they got more and more people into the show,” she said.
What has happened on basic cable is similar.
“I think you can certainly say that the world has changed and that what’s permissible now is very different than it was years ago,” Ms. Cohen said. “But we all have to be mindful of what’s on and is it appropriate for our clients to be in, and that varies by client.”
With “The Shield” and star Michael Chiklis, who plays Vic Mackay, approaching their last call, Mr. Brochstein said FX is pulling out all the stops to make sure that viewers tune in to “The Shield” and that the sponsorship works for Anheuser-Busch.
“From the beginning, when the show was kind of taboo for cable, they were one of the big supporters,” Mr. Brochstein said. “Anheuser-Busch will be in almost every break. You’ll have a real sense it’s A-B’s show. You’re going to clearly know that.”
At the end of the first episode, a special spot will air featuring “Shield” cast members thanking the brewery for its support.
While not thought of as extremely advertiser-friendly, “The Shield” has had a number of products integrated into scenes, according to creator Shawn Ryan.
“We would only do it in a way that added authenticity to the show, so that if someone was drinking beer at the bar, when Vic went to go hound him, you could use actual Budweiser, rather than having to mock up something that looked fake,” Mr. Ryan said.
Autos from Dodge have been used on the show, and neon bar signs have spelled out the names of brands including Jack Daniels, he said.
“But we never got in the position where any character on the show was seen to be endorsing something, which was a big distinction for me,” Mr. Ryan said. “The audience sniffs that stuff out and resents that kind of thing, and we never got into that on ‘The Shield.’”
Mr. Ryan thinks having Anheuser-Busch as a sponsor is a victory over groups that wanted to persuade advertisers to boycott the show.
“I don’t think the show is the right sponsorship opportunity for every single advertiser, but for certain advertisers, Budweiser being one of them, it’s kind of an ideal thing,” he said. “You’re selling an adult product in term of beer. You’re not trying to sell that to 12-year-olds, so a show like ours, which is so heavily dominated by viewers over 18 years old, seems like an obvious place to do that.”