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Advertisers earmark $10 million for family-friendly TV

June 22, 2010 |  4:09 pm

The country's deep-pocketed advertisers want more family-friendly programming on prime-time TV, and they're willing to support it — to the tune of $10 million earmarked specifically to sponsor shows that cater to mom, dad and the youngsters.

So it's not a bad time to remake "The Cosby Show," provided it's a little more sophisticated and a lot less '80s.

The advertiser fund, announced today by a consortium of blue-chip marketers that includes Procter & Gamble, Wal-Mart, Unilever and Coca-Cola, has gathered $10 million "in a very short period of time," said Marc Goldstein, chief content officer for the Assn. of National Advertisers' Alliance for Family Entertainment.

The group plans to dole out the ad dollars to broadcast networks in the coming months but will keep the fund active beyond the 2010-11 TV season. This is the same group, under a slightly different name, that created a script development fund a number of years ago that led to such series as "Gilmore Girls," "Everybody Hates Chris," "Friday Night Lights" and "Ugly Betty."

"We're putting our money where our mouths are," Goldstein said during a morning gathering of advertisers, network executives and TV producers and writers in Beverly Hills on Tuesday. "We want to support this kind of programming in a tangible manner."

The goal is to encourage more shows that families can watch together, Goldstein said, and the motivation is rooted in both good business and consumer trends.

ANA research shows that many brands, especially those trying to reach gatekeepers, get a major lift when they advertise during family-friendly entertainment. Purchase intent alone jumps 12% for consumers seeing those commercials in a safe-for-families context. (At the same time, advertise during the wrong show and the brand takes a hit, according to ANA stats.)

Network brass from NBC, CBS, Fox, the CW and ABC who attended the Paley Center for Media conference said they welcome the targeted money at a time when production budgets are under intense pressure. They said, though, that programming shouldn't have to be sanitized to qualify, and the "Father Knows Best" model of the past would never fly today, no matter how much viewers say they want squeaky-clean choices.

"Values alone will not lead people to watch a show," said Kevin Reilly, president of entertainment at Fox. "It has to work creatively."

An example would be the network's hit "Glee," from "Nip/Tuck" creator Ryan Murphy, who wouldn't have been pegged as the family-friendly type, Reilly said. The show was intended to be "uplifting and aspirational" and, as it's turned out, has become appointment viewing for families.

It's the dark-horse, modestly rated series that Reilly said could benefit most from the advertiser fund, giving support to networks to keep the shows on the air even if they're not blockbusters. It may also give networks the confidence to take a risk on a family-oriented show that might not otherwise make the cut.

No one, on either the advertiser or network side, talked about faithful remakes of past hits that might've been suited to their time but would seem out of date now. In fact, speakers at the morning conference went out of their way to say that family-friendly doesn't have to mean corny and cheesy.

"Just because it's family doesn't mean it's not cool," said "American Idol's" Randy Jackson. "For a while, everybody went edgy, edgy, edgy, and a lot of those shows didn't do so well. Like the record industry, TV was telling people what they should like. Now we're saying, 'Tell me what you like.' It's time to give audiences what they want."

Surprisingly, according to ANA research, 59% of 2,500 TV viewers who took part in a poll said they wanted to see shows about nuclear families, even though traditional units of mom, pop, 2.5 kids and a dog are more scarce than they've ever been. (Numbers cited during the conference showed that less than 23% of Americans fit into that category.)

A couple of more stats that may prove eye opening: 80% of those polled said they're willing to watch commercials on TV, as opposed to 31% who feel that way about the Web and 12% on mobile platforms.

Nearly 80% of the participants said they watch TV for sheer entertainment (not necessarily to be challenged or to confront issues of the day), though Jackson said he thinks TV has the ability to open up discussion on serious topics. "It can be a natural way for a conversation to get started with your kids," Jackson said. "You never know what will spark that."

The advertiser fund is intended to serve an unmet need (and reap the bottom-line benefits), speakers said, at a time when 68% of parents said they were concerned about the effect on their kids of sexual content, profanity and violence on TV.

Some marketers have taken an even more active role in creating TV programming, with Wal-Mart working with P&G and NBC for an all-family movie called "Secrets of the Mountain," which worked so well that three more pictures are in the pipeline. Next up is "The Jensen Project" on July 16.

"This has been a petri dish to prove out the case we're making about advertising in the right context," said Ben Simon, director of Wal-Mart brand marketing and co-chair of the Alliance for Family Entertainment. "There was a significant boost to our brand equity and purchase intent, and we saw that translate to sales increases."

And as for "The Cosby Show," 65% of survey participants said they'd be interested in a 21st century version of the famous sitcom. (The number leapt to 91% among African American viewers). 

— T.L. Stanley


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