History Pitches Branded Content That Tells a Story

To enhance the value of its upcoming scripted dramas to viewers and advertisers, History is ramping up the production of sponsored content that both adds to the show’s story and reflects each sponsor’s brand.

The approach has already attracted advertisers to specials Sons of Liberty, airing Jan. 25, and Texas Rising, which will air on Memorial Day, as well as the third season of Vikings, which premieres Feb. 19, according to Peter Olsen, executive VP of ad sales at A+E Networks, parent company of History.

“These events are really our best chance to go in and compete with the big-ticket landscape out there, The Walking Dead and sports and broadcast,” says Olsen. “With Hatfields and McCoys and The Bible, we have a track record and a creative pedigree and the marketplace is recognizing History’s place in the high-end drama landscape.”

Over the past five years, original programming helped boost History from a sleepy war documentary channel to a top-five-rated network, particularly among young men. Last year, as reruns of reality shows lost their potency, History’s ratings took a double-digit decline. Olsen notes that some of that viewership went to History sibling H2 and says the main channel has a strong development pipeline of historical fiction in the vein of its recent Houdini and Bonnie & Clyde that should draw viewers.

The question for the sales department was “how do we take these big tentpole events and make them more like multiplatform franchises,” Olsen says. History’s answer was short-form story-telling extensions that advance the stories and work on the platform they’ll appear on, whether its video-on-demand, digital or mobile.

“I don’t think we expect too many people to sit with their iPhone and watch an hour-long episode of Vikings. But watching a five-minute compelling piece about your favorite character that’s a real story lends itself to mobile.”

For example, History’s advertising marketing group helped create a video journal for Athelstan, the popular priest character from Vikings. About a dozen short-form pieces are being produced. The vignettes will run separately online and on mobile, and then be combined to create an hour-long special that will air on the network, helping History recoup its investment in creating the content. Verizon will be a key sponsor of the special, but spots from other advertisers will run as well.

Olsen says Verizon will sponsor the vignettes and its customers will get early exclusive access to the content. Verizon will also sponsor an online “Vikings Fantasy League Game.” Prizes include a walk-on role in the series.

The network is also working with a brewer to create a special Vikings beer for certain promotional events.

Brewing Up Something for Liberty

For Sons of Liberty, which is about the founding fathers, one of the key characters is Sam Adams. Naturally, the network reached out to Boston Beer, which markets the Sam Adams brand.

“I literally think it was the day we read the script that we realized that Sam Adams was sort of the star of this show,” says David DeSocio, senior VP, partnerships at A+E Networks. “Serendipitously, the way he’s portrayed in the film, he’s a bit of a rebel. He happens to be really good-looking in the movie, which doesn’t hurt. It wasn’t planned this way, but the character represented the Sam Adams icon from their standpoint.”

Vignettes take a humorous approach—one imagines a redcoat working at the brewery—and DeSocio says mixing branded messages that are lighter in tone with more serious content makes the branded material jump off the screen a bit more.

Those vignettes will begin airing weeks before Sons of Liberty debuts, promoting the show and expanding its footprint. The vignettes will air as programming. A rerun of a series such as Pawn Stars will air from 10 to 10:50 p.m. with a Sons of Liberty vignette airing from 10:50 to 11, giving viewers more original content to watch.

Sonic will be a key sponsor of Texas Rising, with content emphasizing the flavors of Texas, a key market for the restaurant chain. A Sonic “Taste of Texas” sweepstakes will be promoted via Facebook and Twitter.

Olsen says that in all cases, the sponsors have grown their investment in History, and digital content commands a premium rate. Some marketers that had been modest customers of History have become partners; others have become bigger partners.

And longtime advertisers, such as Geico, Chrysler and DirecTV are back again sponsoring special content attached to some or all of these shows, Olsen adds.

“We’re looking at different ways to bring content to viewers and to sponsors,” he says. “The storytelling model works for us as a business, works for our sponsors and we hope works for viewers. It gives them more content they really want and takes a show like Vikings from a 10-week experience to a 16-week experience.”

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.