Branded Entertainment & Creative Freedom

Ironies abound in the current trend back toward branded entertainment. Producing content directly for advertisers, once considered a form of bondage, is now, at least to some, a new form of freedom—-at least from meddling network middlemen.

Stuart Elliott, in his 10/26/12 NYT advertising column, profiles BB Hollywood, a new advertising-agency-slash-content-production-company, which plans to write and produce program content that incorporates advertisers’ brands.

As the members of BB Hollywood acknowledge, this is not a new idea: “television has always been about selling soap.” (Why does industry memory of sponsorship extend back only to early television, rarely to old time radio?)

What caught my eye is that these writers/producers seem to view working directly for advertisers as a form of freedom from the constraints imposed by TV network and film studio executives.

Paul Ruehl, a BB Hollywood writer/producer, notes that he is interested in “taking out the middleman” between the writers and the advertisers: “advertising pays for what we do but we don’t have direct contact with the brands that support our shows.”

Why take out the network middleman? Because Hollywood, as run by the suits, is actually more “corporate” than advertisers: “The irony is, the corporate world is less corporate than Hollywood now.”

Yes, it is ironic that members of BB Hollywood hope to find creative freedom by working directly with advertisers rather than with networks. And they may be right.

Back in the 1930s-40s, advertisers owned the programming; networks simply sold airtime that advertisers (sponsors) used as they wished. Ad agencies oversaw the programming to ensure that “branded entertainment” fulfilled the advertisers’ needs. Creative personnel bemoaned their enslavement to sponsor whims. Former adman/writer Frederic Wakeman’s 1946 roman a clef, The Hucksters, famously laid the blame for bad radio programming squarely at the sponsor’s feet and his narrow views of appropriate entertainment. Erik Barnouw, a radio/TV writer in the 1940s-50s, accused sponsors of making demands such as deleting the word “American” to avoid reminding viewers of a competing brand.

Network program control, publicly announced after the quiz show scandals of 1958-59, was trumpeted as a way to prevent advertisers from subverting popular desires; networks would schedule the programs that the audiences, as measured by Nielsen, want to see. The network middleman also insulated the writer/producer from the direct demands of advertisers.  While sponsors had selected programs based on their narrow advertising goals, networks, it was hoped, would select programs based on ratings, and then sell the audience attention to the highest bidder among advertisers. This unlinking of advertising and programming was supposed to allow a more objective system of program management. Audience preferences would shape program selection; advertisers, relieved of the burden of program development, benefited from accessing larger audiences organized by network programming strategies that built “audience flow.”

Of course network control simply replaced one set of arbitrary constraints with another. In the 1960s, network program control led to complaints about a “vast wasteland” and the rise of Least Objectionable Programming, a network programming strategy arguably even more constraining than that practiced by sponsors of the radio era.

The members of BB Hollywood are correct to characterize the current reign of network management as inherently conservative and risk-averse. Although networks try to balance the need to build audiences with the needs of writer/producers to express themselves, Hollywood’s creatives believe their work is subservient to the networks’ need to attract large enough audiences to justify continual airtime price increases.

BB Hollywood’s turn toward advertisers as a solution to overbearing network control is a delicious historical irony that makes sense in the current moment.

Certain advertisers today, desperate to get the attention of mobile digital audiences, may be more willing than networks to take risks and try new ideas—-at least as long as they are tailored to the branding message.

To get funding for their innovative program ideas, producers can shop their ideas around to thousands of advertisers, rather than the dozens of networks.

Advertisers may be more willing to experiment with branded entertainment than the networks can afford to be—since branded entertainment undermines the network business model based on commercial interruptions.

Adam Kulakow, a BB Hollywood writer, explains, “There’s a pool of talent here, talent that wants to get into the branded space.”

Translation: creative innovators seek funders willing to take risks.

Today those funders may be, as they were in the 1930s-40s radio era, the advertisers.

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