You have a great idea for a TV Show. Now all you have to do is produce it and wait for the accolades and money to roll in. Right? If it only worked that way.
Unfortunately, it takes money to put a show on the air. It takes money to shoot and edit a show and it takes money to buy the air time so that the audience can receive it on their TV sets.
We can assume, then, that to go through this process you need…money. You can supply this money yourself if you have it, or you can find benefactor, patrons, or as we often call them, sponsors.
Sponsors might fund you for several reasons. They might take this step 1) because you look like a nice person who needs help, 2) to make money as a result of good publicity or the advertising value they receive from your show, or 3) because they’re relatives and have more money than sense.
Addled relatives may be the best solution, but if you come from a family of poorly financed underachievers you will probably opt for an individual or business looking to make a buck. This is best. If a sponsor fails to prosper from your efforts, he will simply not fund your next project. A disgruntled family member may very well disinherit you.
On with the Show
You should pre-qualify potential sponsors before you contact them. What do I mean by pre-qualify? Find out the answers to questions such as these: will my potential sponsors be receptive to the idea of financing a TV show? Do they have the budget for such a project? Does the content of my show “fit” with the business of these sponsors?
The more you know about your sponsors, the better. If you approach a cigarette manufacturer to finance a show about lung cancer, you may not have much luck. Don’t waste your time (or the time of the potential sponsor) by setting yourself up for failure. Rejections are mentally debilitating. Avoid them.
What kind of show might a sponsor pay to have produced? You can look to the television networks for the most prevalent type: one that attracts viewers who may buy the sponsor’s product.
We call daytime dramas soap operas because companies like Proctor and Gamble–soap manufacturers–sponsor these shows. Traditionally, these shows were watched by the person in the household most likely to make the soap-buying decision.
Sporting events find sponsors in beer breweries, athletic shoe makers and car manufacturers, among others. Toy companies basically own Saturday morning children’s programming. In fact, many of the shows have ties to specific toys and vice versa, an odd symbiosis. Think about who will want to watch your show and then match a business that has a product to sell to this audience.
Another type of show that a sponsor might pay for is the infomercial. Demonstrating a product can be an effective selling method. Door to door vacuum cleaner salesmen knew this technique. Throw some dirt on the floor and then use the product to clean it up while the customer watches.
Infomercials often go the same way. These shows are basically a long commercial for a product, but are disguised to look like a talk show or a news magazine format show. The channel-surfing viewer might get hooked before realizing he or she is being sold. If a sponsor can take direct orders (from an 800 number or through mail-ins) an infomercial might have appeal.
If one of your local stations is part of a home shopping club network you may be able to create a local version of their programming. Then, for X number of minutes (which you or your sponsor would buy) the station would be selling your sponsor’s product instead of pots and pans or ceramic dolls.
If your goals include more intellectual pursuits, you may be able to get a sponsor for a drama or documentary if the quality of your show is superior. The leadership of a potential sponsor’s company may understand that a fine drama adds to the quality of life of everyone. Or
maybe they recognize that supporting a popular program could help change their “unpopular” status with a certain slice of the viewership. Either way, the arts get funded. Without speculating on motive, here are two examples of corporations which sponsor artistic endeavors: the long-running series of dramas under the banner The Hallmark Hall of Fame and Masterpiece Theater sponsored in part by Mobil Corporation.
Psst, Buddy, Wanna Buy a TV Show?
How do you approach potential sponsors? First you have to find them. This means doing research to learn which companies in your area would even consider funding your show. But just because you have a great idea and your potential sponsors are the perfect candidates to benefit from it doesn’t mean they will do so. You have to sell them on the idea.
Being in business, you have probably had to ask a bank for money. That’s not an easy process, is it? You probably had to create a business plan and outline your life’s history. Then you had to prove to the bank that you are a good risk and that the bank would get the money back that you wanted to borrow.
When you ask a sponsor for money, prepare your case as well as if you were asking a bank for a loan. You are asking a sponsor to risk capital without collateral or any guarantee that the sponsor will get the money back. How receptive will the potential sponsor be to such a plan? That depends on how good a plan it is.
It won’t be easy to get an appointment to discuss a sponsorship. You will have to determine who the appropriate contact is. It may be a marketing person inside the company or the company may have an advertising agency which would handle such a project. You may have to explain your way through several layers of people before finding the right contact. You may be ready to collapse by the time you reach the decision-maker, but this is the point where you must be your most convincing.
Be professional. You are conducting a business transaction. Dress and act appropriately. You may feel that you are an artist and should enjoy creative freedom–even in your choice of dress–but torn jeans and a ratty T-shirt may give a potential sponsor the wrong impression.
Prove the worth of the idea. You know your idea is a winner, but the decision-maker may not. Start at the beginning and take the potential sponsor through a step-by-step explanation of who the audience will be, what style you will use and why being associated with the show will be good for the sponsor. Don’t try to do this off the top of your head. Make notes and practice in front of the mirror. If you lose the potential sponsor during the initial pitch they’re probably gone for good.
Prove that the audience exists. If you plan to air the show on Channel X at 8 p.m. on Friday, get backup data from the television station that shows demographically who makes up the audience in this time period. Salespeople at the TV station need this information to sell commercials to their clients and will share it with you if you tell them your plan for purchasing a chunk of air time.
Prove that the audience will watch. This is a tougher assignment. You can’t really prove this point, but you can make a good argument if you do your homework. Show ratings for similar shows in similar time periods. Get as much hard data as you can. Facts often sell better than enthusiasm.
Prove to the sponsor that they will receive R.O.I. (Return On Investment). If 100,000 people watch your show and 1% of them buy the sponsor’s product (a Rolls Royce Motorcar, for example) at an average price per car of $100,000, the sponsor will gross $10,000,000. (Actual numbers may vary.)
Prove that you can do the job. Have you ever done a TV show before? What was it? If not, have you ever done similar jobs before? Do you have a demo tape showing some samples? Can you give potential sponsors a warm, fuzzy feeling? You may have thought proving your competence in the video production field was the only step
you needed in order to land a sponsor, but as you can see it is merely one of many important steps.
Because each show is different you will run into different obstacles for each of them, but if you can’t go through the steps mentioned above with confidence, then you can go back to step 1. You remember step 1: look for a rich but not overly bright relative.
The acid test is this: is your idea good enough that you would use your own money to produce it and buy the air time if you had the money? If the answer is no, then why would you expect a sponsor to say yes?
Johnny on the Spot
Instead of finding one sponsor to fund your entire operation, you may instead want to sell pieces of time within your show. The sponsors can then use this time to run promotional spots about themselves. You’ve heard of these; we call them commercials.
You will still have to convince sponsors of the worthiness of your show, but because the amount they are spending is smaller, the decision may be easier for them to make. On the other hand, you will have to sell many different sponsors instead of one, which means your job will be more difficult.
There is also more risk for you because you will be buying the air time and then recouping that money by selling commercials. Let’s say you will run your show on cable.
The rate that a cable company can charge you for their air time is based on a formula created by the FCC. The formula is tied to a cable company’s markup and number of subscribers. For example, say your cable system buys HBO for $4.00 per month per subscriber and they turn around and sell it for $10.00 per month to their customers. But only 25% of the potential subscribers actually order HBO, which has an effect on the formula:
$10.00 subscriber fee
-$4.00 cost of programming
$6.00 mark up
x.25 percent of subscribers purchasing a premium channel
$1.50 implicit value of the premium channel, per subscriber, per month
These numbers are for a premium channel. For a channel included in the basic package, the cost would probably be closer to $0.50 per subscriber. But remember, that’s for the whole month. If you only want an hour of time, you would divide that by 720, the number of hours in a month. The answer is $.00069 per subscriber per hour. If your cable system reaches 100,000 households you would pay $69.00 per hour. The cable system can also add fees for billing and collection, marketing and studio services, so ask for an estimate to be sure you are getting a good deal.
On top of that cost is the money you spend on production, promotion of your show, etc. If the total expenditure is $1,000 per week and you have room for 20 commercials, you would sell each commercial for $50 to break even. But you want to make a profit, and there will be times when you won’t be able to sell all the commercials in a show. So you need to charge enough to make up for this shortfall. Supply and demand will have an effect on how much you can get for your spots. If the sponsor’s target market loves your show and you can prove it, the sponsor will pay more. If nobody watches your show, you won’t be able to give your commercial space away. But, hey, that’s business.
Landing sponsors can give you the opportunity to create some great television. But before you start knocking on doors, be sure that your idea is as great as you think it is. Do your homework, back up your theories with facts and get your ducks in a row. Then, assume your best professional demeanor and go get ’em. It’s not an easy gig, but you should be used to that by now. As you know, in video, nothing is ever easy. And that’s the way we like it.