Viewers of TV cricket coverage will appreciate that the game was not designed with commercial breaks in mind. One TV company’s lateral approach to the problem was to offer onscreen ‘sponsorship’ of action replays and boundary announcements.
Who: Ofcom, ARY Digital
When: September 2006
A number of TV viewers complained to Ofcom about "advertising" that appeared during coverage of India v Pakistan cricket matches shown on satellite/cable channel ARY Digital on 26 January 2006 and 6 February 2006.
Every time a boundary was hit or an action replay was shown during the broadcast, a message would come up against a blue background at the bottom of the screen, stating respectively: "WOW! Yet another boundary! Courtesy: KESSER JEWELLERS – BRADFORD – 01374 733851" and "Action replay courtesy: UK LAND INVESTMENTS FREEHOLD LAND From £14500 in North London. First 100 callers get 25% discount. Call now 020 7969 1815."
Ofcom also investigated the sponsor credits at the start of the programmes. The credit for the main programme sponsor UK Land Investments included the claim "World leader in land investment". Another programme sponsor credit for United Nations Bank contained the bank's telephone number with the message "FREE Number – Lines open 9am-9pm".
Each of these different sponsorship messages was held to be in breach of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code.
Why this matters
Viewers of TV cricket coverage will appreciate that the game was not designed with commercial breaks in mind. Broadcasts are unusually long – often up to 8 hours in one stretch – and little time is allowed for commercial breaks during play.
Offering onscreen 'sponsorship' of action replays and boundary announcements must have looked like an innovative, lateral approach to this problem. However, TV sponsorship arrangements don't just have to comply with the CAP Code: they also have to meet the requirements of the Ofcom Broadcasting Code. Those requirements include the following:
Rule 9.13. Sponsorship credits must be clearly separated from programmes by temporal or spatial means.
Rule 9.14. Sponsorship must be clearly separated from advertising. Sponsor credits must not contain advertising messages or calls to action. In particular, credits must not encourage the purchase or rental of the products or services of the sponsor or a third party.
Rule 10.3. Products and services must not be promoted in programmes. This rule does not apply to programme related material. (See Rule 10.6.)
Rule 10.4. No undue prominence may be given in any programme to a product or service.
Ofcom's adjudication in this case is useful in so far as it helps cast further light on the regulator's approach as to what counts as an unacceptable "advertising message". It also confirms that sponsorship of part of a programme only, as opposed to the whole of a programme, is not precluded under the Ofcom Code. But Ofcom's rationale in relation to the timing and frequency of the boundary and action-replay sponsor messages is not necessarily as clear as one might wish.
Unacceptable 'advertising messages' in sponsor credits
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ofcom held that the UK Land Investments action-replay credit was unacceptable. It contained specific price information, a sales incentive and a direct invitation to viewers to contact the sponsor – all key banana skins for sponsor credits.
The UK Land Investments main sponsor credit and the United Nations Bank Credit were also held to be unacceptable: "World leader in land investment" was held to be an advertising message; the description of a telephone line as "FREE" was held to be "specific price information…included for promotional purposes" and hence also unacceptable.
However, the adjudication confirms the established practice that inclusion of basic contact information (such as in the Kesser Jewellers message: "BRADFORD – 01374 733851") is acceptable and will not in and of itself be seen as a call to action.
Sponsorship of programme parts
The Ofcom Broadcasting Code is silent as to whether and in what circumstances it is permissible for a third party to sponsor parts of a programme rather than the whole of a programme. So, aside from the difficulties mentioned above with the content of some of the sponsor credit messages, wasn't it fair enough for ARY Digital to take on sponsors for the boundary celebration and action-replay parts of its broadcast?
Apparently not, although it's not entirely clear why. In its adjudication, Ofcom expressly states that its code "does not preclude sponsorship of programme parts" – so no problem as such with that. The regulator also appears to have been comfortable that the arrangements here were transparent and that there was adequate separation between sponsor credits and programme content. So what was Ofcom's beef?
Confusingly, the breach here was held as a breach of the "undue prominence" provisions in Rule 10.4. Ofcom's logic was that (a) boundaries are outside the broadcaster's control and are "unsuitable for broadcast sponsorship", with the frequency of boundaries resulting in "undue prominence" for the sponsors; and (b) although action replays are a bona fide part of the broadcast content, their frequency (approximately every 2 ½ minutes) resulted in "an extremely high and unjustified level of prominence".
But given that Ofcom accepted that the credits were appropriately separated from the programme content (presumably as a result of them appearing against a blue background at the bottom of the screen), it seems odd that the regulator should regard the credits as giving rise to undue prominence "within the programme"…
We are not sure that the logic underlying this adjudication really stacks up. We wonder if the real lessons to be distilled from it may be the following unwritten rules:
A. Where a part only of a programme is to be sponsored, it needs to look and feel like a distinct part of the programme (the adjudication gives the example of a "weather section").
B. Sponsorship messages must not appear too frequently on-screen – appearing more frequently than typical ad break frequency is likely to be a problem.
C. Sponsorship of an "unscheduled" part of a broadcast may be risky, and will certainly be a problem if the unscheduled nature leads to an unacceptable frequency of sponsorship messages.
We hope that these issues will be clarified in future Ofcom guidance.