By Brian Steinberg
For the first time in the 35-season history of "Saturday Night Live," an advertiser is buying all the national ad time in the broadcast of the venerable late-night comedy show.
As the Oct. 17 program moves into ad breaks, viewers will see segments entitled "Backstage with Bud Light Golden Wheat," which will feature a series of never-before-aired clips from "SNL" throughout the years. Ad breaks will also include highlights from live "SNL" viewing parties held in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia that will be "hosted" by Bud Light Golden Wheat.
In all, eight to nine minutes of Anheuser’s commercial time will be devoted to content that makes use of "SNL"-related material, said Lorne Michaels, the show’s longtime executive producer.
Viewers can expect to see "SNL" content that has never aired before, such as segments from the program’s dress rehearsals, which are performed before a live audience and often contain material that does not make it on air.
Though "Saturday Night Live" has long borne a distinctive counterculture sheen, NBC’s pact with Budweiser suggests that the show’s appeal to mainstream advertisers that want to co-opt its pop-culture currency is on the rise.
Just last January, the cast and crew of "SNL" helped create three different ads for Pepsi that looked just like the show’s "MacGruber" sketches, a long-running spoof of the old "MacGyver" TV series.
The ads ran during commercial breaks on the Jan. 31 edition of the show, and one also appeared during the Super Bowl. At the time, a Pepsi-Cola spokeswoman said, "We definitely feel like it’s not a one-off," and suggested Pepsi would be interested in working with "Saturday Night Live" and other TV programs in the future.
More advertisers are altering their buying practices along these lines. Rather than solely buying ad time broadly across an entire network schedule, marketers are also trying to drill deeper into specific pieces of content that reach a certain kind of audience.
Just this week, Microsoft and News Corp.’s Fox unveiled a deal that will have the software giant sponsor a variety show produced by "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane. The show will air Nov. 8 without commercial interruption, instead featuring Windows product throughout the show.
Marketers "want to connect to the content. They want to be authentic to the viewer. They want to do something different, and they want to give the viewer something they aren’t going to get" otherwise, said Marianne Gambelli, president-NBC Universal network ad sales.
But "Saturday Night Live" isn’t always so easy for an advertiser to crack. When talking to marketers, said Mr. Michaels, "I think you still go in with a level of caution — not in terms of trust issues, but I think you want to make sure the boundaries are intact, because when you do parody commercials and when you do what we do in the same way politically — we have to stay non-partisan."
Mr. Michaels is "open" to working with advertisers, said Ms. Gambelli, "but he’s going to be very selective in terms of who he wants to work with."
A-B approached NBC over the summer about the idea of working with "SNL," said Mr. Michaels. The beer-maker’s long history of supporting "SNL" seems to have played a role in the show’s willingness to partner on an ad venture. "Early on, when the show was more controversial in the ’70s, they were steadfast, so we have a long history with them," he said. Long-time watchers may recall that A-B would run "billboards," or seconds-long promotional segments announcing its sponsorship, after the show’s live music performances.
Increased support of ‘SNL’
After a few years of pulling back on spending for the program, A-B appears to have increased its support. For the first nine months of this year, the marketer spent more than $2.2 million to advertise on "SNL," according to TNS Media Intelligence, compared with $773,400 for all of 2008 and more than $1.8 million for all of 2007. The sponsorship is part of A-B’s overall campaign to launch Bud Light Golden Wheat, which arrived on store shelves nationwide Oct. 5.
Viewers are not likely to see product placements or the like during this Saturday’s broadcast, although Mr. Michaels said fans may get glimpses of backstage proceedings, such as seeing musical guest Shakira leaving the stage before NBC moves into a commercial break, as part of the sponsorship. "If it’s part of what this evening is about, then we’ll acknowledge that it’s part of it," he said, noting that perhaps a Budweiser logo could come on screen and replace the "SNL" logo.
Sponsored segments that make such use of the program itself have become more common in late-night TV, and have also turned up during some of MTV’s past "Video Music Awards" ceremonies.
Taking over an entire program’s worth of commercial time is a technique that has become more popular in recent years. Philips Electronics tested the idea in October 2005 by buying all the national ad time in CBS’s "60 Minutes" and giving some of the inventory back to the show for use as longer story segments (Mr. Michaels said "SNL" needs time during the commercial breaks to break down sets and set up new ones). When only one advertiser is present, TV networks typically try to charge a price ensuring they take in as much money as they would if a full complement of sponsors was present. NBC’s Ms. Gambelli declined to comment on the financial terms of the deal.
Sponsoring "SNL" this weekend will not keep the program’s writing staff from poking fun at the brewer should it become part of the news this week. "Please. Does ’30 Rock’ make GE jokes?" asked Mr. Michaels. "It’s what we do."
Even so, the current economic climate has forced producers of all stripes to be more open to advertiser involvement with their properties. "Sales approached us, it doesn’t affect our budget and the network at the moment can use help, so here we are," said Mr. Michaels. Is he eager to try it again? He said the effort is likely a "one-time thing" — a comment similar to remarks he made earlier this year regarding "SNL’s" work with Pepsi. "Ask me Sunday," he said.#