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FROM THIS EPISODE

For KCRW, this is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

If you're old enough to remember Texaco Star Theater or the Schlitz Playhouse of Stars a few decades ago, you may have felt a sense of deja vu last night if you were watching the NBC Nightly News.

At the top of the half-hour show, an announcer intoned that it was being "brought to you with limited commercial interruption by Philips."

The electronics company ran three ads totaling a mere one minute and 15 seconds, a far cry from the 14 spots that typically take up about seven minutes of Nightly News air time. Instead, the show ran longer news stories, which was nice for people who enjoy watching actual news.

John Kelly, senior vice president for network news advertising at NBC said that, with this campaign, "Philips feels that by offering less they're getting more."

NBC's trial run is part of an increasingly visible trend toward branded entertainment, a newfangled term for something that was done all the time in the early days of radio and television.

It's happening again now because advertisers are afraid that, with gadgets like TiVo that enable viewers to zip past commercials, audiences are tuning them out altogether. The thinking is that with branded shows and fewer commercials, audiences will be more tolerant of advertising pitches and the occasional interruption.

As far back as 2002, Ford Motor Company sponsored the premiere of the second season of Fox's hit drama 24, which was shown without commercial breaks. Ed Robertson, an author and television historian, says he doesn't expect to see Taco Bell's Grey's Anatomy any time soon, even as corporate sponsors put their names on sports stadiums throughout the land.

But the enormous increase in alternative platforms for TV programs, which can now be seen on cell phones, iPods and other hand-held gadgets, means that advertisers and television producers need to radically alter their thinking.

"More and more people are watching shows without actually owning a TV," Robertson said. "Between MySpace.com and logging onto network sites like ABC.com, it is entirely possible to watch shows and viral videos with no set. If that trend continues, and if you're an advertiser, it certainly makes sense to go back to the old model."

That "old model" of single-brand sponsorship harks back to the days when watching television was an event. Fewer people had one and it was still considered a novelty. In many cases, advertisers had creative control over programs and sometimes threatened to pull their sponsorship if their demands on hiring or content were not met.

No such control is being given these days to advertisers who choose to be the sole sponsor of a show, but some companies have teamed up with their advertising agencies to create TV programs, films and online shows.

Puneet Manchanda, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, said branded programs are a good first step in improving the relationship between advertisers and consumers, many of whom are fed up with commercials.

"If I want to watch Desperate Housewives," he said, "and it's sponsored by, say, Colgate, and I know that upfront, then it helps me to build a relationship with Colgate because I'm not annoyed by their ads."

Single-sponsor advertising has even reached magazines. The August 22 issue of the New Yorker had just one advertiser, the retailer Target, which filled every ad space in the issue with images produced by well-known illustrators.

At NBC, the deal with Philips was visible on Nightly News for just one night, but there may be more.

John Reiss, executive producer of Nightly News, said, "It's a win for the viewers, and it works for us because it enables us to do stories we wouldn't otherwise be able to do."

In other words, actual news.

This is Nick Madigan of The Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.


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