When we talk about the rise of branded filmmaking, it’s easy to overemphasize the novelty of brands taking over the job of content creation in the entertainment industry. It is true that this model never dominated the Hollywood studio system, and that the kind of brand stories that are being told now are different from what came before. But branded entertainment is far from unprecedented.
In the past, radio and television programs were sponsored and even produced by brands and their advertising agencies. In fact, many historians of American television identify the first “Golden Age of Television” as opening in 1947 – the year that Kraft Television Theatre debuted on NBC.
Kraft was an early adopter of radio advertising, using both short-form ads and long-form programs exemplifying what came to be called “entertainment that sells.” Beginning in 1929, the Forecast Radio School of Cooking aired three mornings a week with recipes that incorporated the company’s products. A long line of sponsored programs followed, ranging from newscasts to variety shows to narrative adventure serials – an especially popular program was Kraft Music Hall, which ran from 1933 to 1949. Other brands joined in, and sponsored content became the norm in radio, with programs often bearing the name of the sponsor within the title. Procter & Gamble, along with competitors like Palmolive, introduced a new serial format in the “soap opera,” so named because it gave extensive air time to promoting detergents. P&G even maintained its own studio for radio programs and opened a production arm that still operates today.
Television broadcasting in the U.S. began in 1928, but a series of technological and legal challenges kept it from achieving widespread adoption for the first decade of its existence. NBC’s broadcasts from the 1939 New York World’s Fair marked television’s emergence as a popular medium. Advertising was not long to follow, and in 1941 New York-based WNBT aired a test pattern that had been customized as an ad for Bulova watches before a Brooklyn Dodgers game.
The first television networks – NBC, CBS, DuMont and later ABC – began by primarily broadcasting sporting events, theatrical performances and other live happenings, but they anticipated the need for studio-created content and looked to brands to provide the financial backing. NBC led the way, bringing the popular radio program The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports from radio to TV in 1944. In 1946, NBC and New York ad agency J. Walter Thompson created the successful hour-long musical variety show Hour Glass. Sponsored by JWT client Standard Brands, the series served as a platform for promoting Chase and Sanborn Coffee, Fleischmann’s Yeast and Tender Leaf Tea.
As noted, the real breakthrough came in 1947, when NBC gave the nation Kraft Television Theatre. A prestige program that featured both adaptations of popular stage plays and original content, it was also produced by J. Walter Thompson. In order to test the effectiveness of TV as an advertising medium, Kraft and JWT made the show the exclusive platform for promoting MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese, a higher-cost product that had poor name recognition among consumers. As the show gained in popularity, the cheese became a major seller. Kraft Television Theatre also introduced the famous “hands commercials,” in which a close-up pair of hands demonstrated recipes using Kraft products, accompanied by voice-over by industry legend Ed Herlihy. The series lasted until 1958, and Kraft continued to sponsor other weekly television programs until 1971.
1948 saw the television debut of Texaco Star Theater, another hit series carried over from radio. Optioned by Texaco and the William Morris Talent Agency as a comedic variety show with a rotating roster of hosts, it crystallized as a starring vehicle for Milton Berle. The opening featured Texaco employees performing a humorous company jingle:
Oh, we’re the men of Texaco
We work from Maine to Mexico
There’s nothing like this Texaco of ours!
Our show tonight is powerful
We’ll wow you with an hour full
Of howls from a shower full of stars.
We’re the merry Texaco men
Tonight we may be showmen
Tomorrow we’ll be servicing your cars!
The technological demands of television production meant that filming of most early programs could not practically be achieved by brands or ad agencies in their own studios – the networks saw to this need with large broadcasting facilities such as NBC’s studios in Rockefeller Center. (Most early TV production took place in New York, although Hollywood entered the game in 1950 with The Colgate Comedy Hour and Chicago briefly made a name for itself with innovative, low-budget programming.) But brands and advertisers were active in production and enjoyed a high degree of creative control, with networks emphasizing distribution over content creation.
The current model of television production that consolidates control in network hands was devised in the early 1950s by NBC vice president Pat Weaver, although it took two decades to completely transform the industry. Weaver embraced what he called “the magazine concept,” which gave networks sole control over production and limited advertisers to purchasing short inserts that would air during commercial breaks. Major branded programs like The U.S. Steel Hour and Goodyear Television Playhouse continued to debut throughout the '50s, and single-sponsor programs were still easy to find in the '60s. But the original model of branded television programs was on its way out.
From our current vantage point, TV has been the domain of networks (and independent studios contracted by networks) for so long that brand-created content can feel like a deviation from “the way it’s always been.” But sponsored programming was a key part of making early television broadcasting a financially viable endeavor. It’s worth remembering that in business and culture, progress is never linear; a concept that worked for an earlier age may be transformed and re-invented as a great idea for today. There is a growing consensus that we’ve been living through a second Golden Age of Television, and what better time for the comeback of quality branded entertainment?
Gary R. Edgerton, The Columbia History of American Television, Columbia University Press (2009)
Ron Lackman, The Encyclopedia of American Television: Broadcast Programming Post-World War II to 2000, Facts on File (2002)