Programming and Airtime Deals

First up this week – a need to set the record straight. A couple of weeks ago I was critical of ‘Campaign’ over its (lack of) reporting of the implications around programme content being included in a deal between GroupM and Channel4. I wrote that ‘Campaign’ should have investigated further. Well, now they have, and so credit is due to Gideon Spanier and to ‘Campaign’ for doing so.

That said the issue of linking airtime sales/buys with programme sales/buys rumbles on and has I fear many a rumble to go.

As the ‘Campaign’ story details, John Billett, a veteran media man (even more veteran than me and that’s saying something) and the Chairman of ID Comms, a media consultancy business that advises its clients on the efficacy of their media activities has written to the new Chairman of Channel4 with his concerns.

Setting aside for a moment the inevitable cries of ‘well he would say that wouldn’t he, given the nature of the business he chairs’, John’s fundamental concerns seem to me well-founded and to go far beyond the narrow confines of whether or not a consultancy or indeed an auditor has access to the inner workings of the airtime market-place.

The underlying question is: is it acceptable to blur the lines between editorial independence and commercial pressures?

None of us on the outside can know the details of the commercial arrangement between any agency and any broadcaster; so what follows is about the principle rather than the specific. Whether Channel4 and GroupM (or any agency group; most of the large groups are involved in programme barter in one form or another) happen in this particular instance to be blurring this line is altogether a different question.

It’s the opportunity to do so that is a concern.

For many years advertisers have sought to influence the media. To take a (presumably fictional) example even the current ITV drama ‘Mr Selfridge’ has the eponymous Harry Selfridge threatening a press owner with a withdrawal of advertising unless the owner’s papers stop giving him a hard time editorially.

I was rather hoping for ironic neatness that ‘Mr Selfridge’ would turn out to be a GME production, but sadly it seems not to be.

There is nothing new in the pressure between commercial needs and editorial freedom, as a recent row at ‘The Telegraph’ indicates. Indeed the Cog Blog has made this point before.

It’s important that the line between editorial freedom and commercial pressures survives. Yes, of course there were soap operas in the USA with Procter and Gamble making radio dramas, but they were transparent – everyone knew who was paying for them.

Same with product placement in movies – James Bond has to smash up several cars per film, if Aston Martin or whoever wants to provide the cars (and be duly acknowledged as having done so in the credits) then what’s wrong with that?

It’s about being clear and transparent.

Where things start to go wrong is when or if the advertiser starts to seek a degree of ‘undue influence’ over what’s broadcast.

Or when the advertiser connives with the media owner’s commercial teams to mislead the reader or viewer.

So back to the rumoured deal between Channel4 and GroupM. As I’ve said none of myself, (I suspect) John Billett and ‘Campaign’ know the details of this particular deal. Both parties say they’re operating by the rules, so we have to accept that. It’s the opportunity for pressure to be exerted that’s dangerous.

Once you have an organisation selling shows, or financing shows to be sold to the same broadcaster from whom that same organisation is buying airtime then there’s danger lurking.

Is this old-fogey-style thinking? Am I wistfully trying to ‘wind the clock back 30 years’ (to quote someone in the ‘Campaign’ piece)? I don’t think so. This is about upholding the principle that advertising and editorial matters should be separated.

Why is this important in a digital age when we’re all content providers, social media, digital freedoms blah, blah, blah?

Setting aside lofty concerns over freedom of expression and the wish not to have large commercial organisations covertly influencing what we see and read, there is the matter of the audience.

Audiences are not dumb. Once the line separating independently produced content from paid-for influence starts to blur and weaken, so audiences’ cynicism will increase. Which will lead to them assuming undue influence where maybe there is none.

Ultimately this is not a good thing for the publisher, nor for the advertiser. It’s why brands need to step very carefully when it comes to native advertising and to listen to those with no interest in selling them the latest shiny bauble.

To say it again, clarity and transparency is crucial.

One quote from GroupM in ‘Campaign’ caught my eye: “GME (GroupM Entertainment) operates as an independent business, separate from GroupM’s media agency businesses”.

I’m sure that’s true but that’s not to say that GME deals can’t in some way influence GroupM’s airtime deals which most certainly feed through to the media agencies.

If WPP really wanted GME to operate independently from the rest of GroupM, then why put it in GroupM? It would have been perfectly simple to establish a programme finance business within WPP that had no organisational relationship with GroupM.

Putting programme finance in to the same mini-holding company as airtime negotiations is bound to arouse suspicion and to prepare the way for one or two misguided individuals to have the opportunity to operate on the basis of what’s best for the buyer in the short term, as opposed to what’s best for the advertiser whose money they are, after all spending.

It’s a dilemma which might sound familiar to planners in some of the large holding company-owned agencies.

 

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