Funding in aisle nine?

It's remarkable how creative producers and broadcasters can get when cobbling together a budget, particularly in a super-competitive, tight market like the UK.
April 1, 2010

It’s remarkable how creative producers and broadcasters can get when cobbling together a budget, particularly in a super-competitive, tight market like the UK. Funding sources, on the other hand, are fairly staid and limited. Well, things might be changing a little bit. Avenues such as product placement and commercial sponsorship remain largely restricted to adult-targeted producers as a source of cash, but two recent UK kid-friendly projects have been testing the waters, luring unlikely financing partners in the form of large grocery store chains Morrison’s and Tesco.

With 370 stores across Britain, grocery retailer Morrison’s ponied up the complete budget for the first 10 x half-hour season of Farm Camp (produced by London-based Handle & Spout), which aired this past fall on ITV’s dedicated children’s channel CiTV.

The reality show targeting seven to 12s follows 10 children who swap city life for the farm and discover where their food actually comes from, while slogging through a daily set of chores. Mentored by a leader, Farmer Paul, the recruits take on challenges such as milking cows, tending to pigs or answering tough trivia questions about fruits and veggies.

The grocer financed the show, signing on as its sponsorship partner as part of its ‘Let’s Grow’ marketing and PR campaign designed to educate kids about the origin of their food. CiTV’s program manager Jamila Metran explains that the show was in the early stages of development when the broadcaster was approached by Morrison’s, which asked if there were any projects in its pipeline that complemented the retailer’s healthy eating mandate. While on the backburner, Farm Camp appealed immediately and the grocery chain came on as a sponsor, setting the production wheels in motion.

To be clear, the series adheres to advertising restrictions laid down by Ofcom, the government regulatory body that oversees broadcasting in the UK. Metran explains that the formula only works if the show is already in development and just happens to match up with the needs of an advertiser. ‘The idea has to come from the broadcaster – the only thing the advertiser does is fund it,’ she says. ‘They get their branding around the program, but they’re not to have any creative input.’

In the case of Farm Camp, there is no product placement in the footage or direct advertising on Morrison’s part, aside from sponsorship bumpers at the top and bottom of the show. The benefit for Morrison’s comes from the show’s association with the grocer’s campaign, explains Handle & Spout creative director Paul Shuttleworth.

‘The art of ad-based funding in the UK is to have shows that share the same brand essence as the sponsors,’ says Shuttleworth. ‘It’s not about Morrison’s selling more potatoes,’ he remarks. Rather, it’s about positioning the grocer as a wholesome supermarket that supports families. To further reinforce the Let’s Grow message, parents were incouraged to collect vouchers from Morrison’s stores that their kids cashed in for gardening equipment for their schools. Additionally, Farm Camp ends up getting an in-store presence via the promotion, which lasted several weeks last November.

Shuttleworth says the only challenge of working with a corporate sponsor was the compressed production cycle. Once Morrison’s gave the greenlight, he had to kick the production into high gear last July to deliver the show in time to air during Morrison’s November campaign rollout. ‘We had to cast the kids, find the farm and turn an entire reality show around in that time,’ says Shuttleworth. ‘Sometimes that’s where deals fall apart – you get yourself in a project, but the sponsor’s already done its marketing spend for the year and it’s too late.’

With one season of Farm Camp under Handle & Spout’s belt, Shuttleworth says he hopes to revive the show with a second season to bow alongside the next wave of Morrison’s ongoing campaign. In the meantime, he’s ready to run it as a format, and has his eyes open for local retail partners in other territories. ‘

CiTV’s Metran explains that she hasn’t seen deals similar to Handle & Spout’s conducted much yet in children’s programming. However, last year the broadcaster commissioned three other sponsor-funded kids shows, including a 10 x five-minute factual program, Green Up Your Life, as part of the Generation Green campaign from British Gas; Skillicious, an eight x half-hour high-energy sports series in collaboration with beverage company Britvic; and Wild World, a 10-part nature series funded by gift company Kids Activity Days. Metran says she hopes to bow a couple more sponsored shows each year.

Morrison’s isn’t the only retailer getting into showbiz. Tesco, the third-largest retailer in the world, has also signed on to help finance several DVD premiere features. Newly formed media company Amber Entertainment, with offices in London and L.A., is teaming up with the chain to bring the books of well-known authors to life as DVD movies. The catch is that the titles will be sold exclusively at Tesco for a three-month window, at which point Amber will be able to distribute them worldwide.

First on deck are a series of movies based on Jackie Collins’ novels. But the studio has kids content coming down the pipe. Amber plans to start production on a screen adaptation of Judy Blume tween novel Tiger Eye this summer, and have the DVD hit shelves by Christmas.

Amber co-founder Lawrence Elman explains that authors, though already well-recognized, might not necessarily have the fire power to pull off a theatrical release. Creating for the small screen, he contends, is making less economic sense, given the diminishing revenues from TV sales. So Amber’s goal was to produce a new platform in DVD premieres by creating movie series with pre-established brand awareness that have the look and feel of a theatrical release.

At press time, Elman and partner Ileen Maisel were in New York meeting with Judy Blume and her son, the movie’s director, Larry Blume, to finalize the script. If all goes well, Tiger Eye will be the first in a series of Judy Blume DVD movies for Tesco.

Elman says the retailer isn’t involved in the creative production at all, with the exception of requiring the films to be family-rated. He adds that Tesco’s not aiming to replace studios or film companies, but is looking to provide a point of difference for its customers.

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