Cable’s Live Events Are Paying Off Big-Time This Summer

Cramming in sponsors

If you were teetering over the Grand Canyon, grinding your butt on Robin Thicke or just dueting with Charlie Wilson, you were everywhere advertisers wanted to be this summer. Event programming made a bigger splash than usual in the summer of 2013, thanks in part to a resurgence at Viacom’s networks for their awards shows and an inventive stunt by Nik Wallenda on Discovery Channel.

Driven in part by an ’NSync reunion and the antics of Miley Cyrus, the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards got a 47 percent boost in the 12-34 demo (7.8), while the BET Awards put up the second-largest rating among adults 18-49 in the network’s history. Both events were leveraged to the hilt with advertisers from McDonald’s to Cadillac to Pepsi—even the star-shaped BET Awards statuettes were branded.

Event programming is inherently risky, but the payoff can be immense, said Darcy Bowe, associate media director at Starcom. “If you have brands that are thinking about back-to-school, unfortunately there’s not a lot on television. But with event programming, you can buy sponsorship packages,” Bowe said. “There’s a preshow, a repeat, an award, or they bring you the Katy Perry performance, for example, and there’s a way to get the brand attribution that way.”

One media analyst noted that if there’s a hefty ratings payload, clients get a much higher quality delivery than if you simply buy the insomnia slot for your target demo over the same number of GRPs. “It’s about the unduplicated reach,” the analyst said.

It’s also about timing. Since event shows tend to deliver almost exclusively live viewership, you can schedule a major push around a very specific product release date without much trouble.

Harold Morgenstern, svp of advertising at Discovery, points to Mitsubishi and Disney as two advertisers who heavily invested in Skywire Live (Wallenda’s June 23 tightrope walk across the Grand Canyon). The spectacle itself sustained 13 million viewers for the 23 minutes of Wallenda’s actual feat—a branding win for Mitsubishi in particular, given that the daredevil wore the automaker’s logo on his sleeve.

Of course, one of the drawbacks of a live broadcast is that things might not go according to plan. Brands were prepared for the pearl-clutching reaction to Cyrus and Thicke. Beats Electronics, which sponsors the VMAs and individual artists, ran a spot making fun of Thicke for having backup dancers that were anything but, and of Cyrus for lacking the prerequisite twerking assets. For Discovery, “the hardest sell was convincing clients that [Wallenda] wasn’t going to fall,” Morgenstern said. “They were concerned that he’d ‘lose contact with the wire’—that was how we put it—and they’d be associated with it.”