Package of Hefty Zoo Pals plates with Arthur's face

What makes an underwriting deal in 2008?

It could be a celebrity walk-through on the paper products aisle

Posted Sept. 15, 2008
By Steve Behrens

While walking the supermarket aisles, you may have noticed that faces from PBS Kids’ Arthur have appeared on Hefty Zoo Pals disposable plates. Get them while you can, because the festive plates will vanish by Thanksgiving.

The licensing deal was planned that way. It’s an example of the more flexible packages that WGBH is offering these days to bring in series production money.

During September, October and November, the generic ducks and walruses of Hefty Zoo Pals plates are joined by Arthur packages, including the young aardvark himself and his friends D.W., Baby Kate and Pal, the dog.

In exchange for production money, WGBH gives Hefty’s manufacturer not only a year’s worth of the usual 15-second credits on the PBS show, but also the three-month character licensing deal, ads on websites and other options such as characters in “walk around” costumes for the special events.

Plus, Hefty offered to sell Zoo Pals plates at a reduced price to PBS-member stations for use at children’s screenings and kids’ club events. By August, 80 stations had bought 875 cases of the plates, WGBH said. Reduced-price orders must be placed by the end of October.

The offer to sweeten the underwriting deal with a short licensing promotion on plates may have made the sponsorship deal happen, acknowledges Suzanne Zellner, WGBH v.p., corporate development, and not at the cost of potential character licensing revenue. “I don’t think the licensing dollars would have come in aside from sponsorship,” she says.

“It’s a very tough sponsorship market,” Zellner says. “We’re trying to be as nimble and aggressive as we can. We try to listen to what companies want.” Children’s program sponsorships are up 40 percent in the past fiscal year, she observes.

Besides Zoo Pals, CVS pharmacies and Chuck E. Cheese’s are now among the 11 underwriters of WGBH’s lineup for kids.

Including national shows for adults, WGBH’s corporate underwriting sales were up 10 to 15 percent in fiscal year 2008, which ended Aug. 31, she said. This surpasses WGBH’s peak year for underwriting sales, 2003, when Volkswagen underwrote The Blues.

WGBH’s selling points couldn’t be better expressed than by Lisa Burns, marketing manager for the plate manufacturer, Pactiv Corp. She says in a news release: “Connecting with Arthur’s large audience and reaching parents in such a positive environment is exactly the kind of brand-building exposure we were looking for.”

Coincidentally, Hefty products’ manufacturer, Pactiv, is a corporate descendant of Mobil Corp., once a mainstay of WGBH underwriting. The product line was sold by Mobil to Tenneco and then spun off into Pactiv.

WGBH's national underwriting unit, Sponsorship Group for Public Television, has been offering three-month character licensing deals for years, Zellner says. The funder gets a unique promotional asset but the program-related imagery isn’t overexposed. Each program underwriter can have one licensing deal a year at no extra cost. Some underwriters aren’t interested, but others were, including Chick-fil-A, a funder of Between the Lions, and Arby’s, which backs Fetch! Arthur has been seen before in Juicy Juice promos.

Website ads are also part of the package at no extra charge. WGBH tells the underwriter that its brand will be everywhere the program’s brand will be, Zellner says, including program preview screenings around the country and educational materials. Antiques Roadshow funders Subaru and Liberty Mutual get promotion at the program’s huge regional taping sessions around the country. In particular, they get booths near the exit, where departing antique owners may be in the mood to hear about insurance for valuables or a new set of wheels to carry them home.

WGBH throws in the freebies, because these underwriters “are funding the production,” Zellner says. That doesn’t mean they carry the whole production budget, however. Since ExxonMobil quit as sole underwriter for Masterpiece Theatre several years ago, WGBH hasn’t found any company willing to donate $10 million a year.

“We have moved away from a set amount for production,” Zellner says. The funding plan for each production includes shares from various sources, including corporate underwriters, major donors, federal agencies, and broadcast rights from foreign networks. Some productions’ funding plans don’t cover all costs.

Instead of signing a single underwriter for a full year, as in the heyday of Mobil Masterpiece Theatre, the station typically signs up as many as four underwriters per series, and often for partial years. “The initial conversation is always about a full-year sponsorship,” Zellner says, and that can come with sweeteners such as category exclusivity—being the only automobile brand, for instance, on a series.

The restructuring of Masterpiece into three seasons and three sub-series brands enables WGBH to sell shorter flights to underwriters who want them, such as January through May on Masterpiece Classics or June through October on Masterpiece Mystery. The audiences of one sub-series and another aren’t very different in the usual gender and age demographics, though they may be different individuals, Zellner observes.

But being able to offer a shorter Masterpiece deal “has enabled us to have lots and lots of meetings” with prospective underwriters, Zellner says. “That feels good. We’re in a different place from a year ago.”

Web page posted Sept. 16, 2008
Copyright 2008 by Current LLC

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