According to preliminary ratings Fox’s production of “Grease” averaged a 4.3 rating/13 share in adults 18-49 and 12.2 million viewers overall. This puts it behind NBC’s “The Sound Of Music” and ahead of their other offerings. It also did something that was perceived as new and noteworthy: it directly integrated a sponsor, Coca Cola, into the production. Along with traditional :30 interruptive commercials scattered throughout the show, Sandy and Danny could be seen drinking Cokes with several scenes taking place alongside retro signage, making this production of “Grease” a #CreatedWith experience for Coca Cola.
The #CreatedWith musical is the next step up the branded content foodchain from arrangement Walmart had with musical productions on NBC. During “The Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan,” Walmart ran ads featuring the songs from the shows and tailored the spots to specific plot segments that had just occurred.
This past December’s “The Wiz Live” advanced what a brand like Wal-Mart or Redi-Whip’s sponsorships could entail. The spots saw performances of songs from the show by a children’s choir to further Redi Whip’s branding. However, all of this evolution is actually a revision to a time when musical theater was a larger part of television, and all of it was sponsored.
In the years before musicals were shunted off to PBS or served up with the designation of a Very Special Episode of a show (for further reading, see “Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s” Once More, With Feeling), networks invested heavily in musical theater. In the 1950s and 60s, networks would regularly air musicals in shows that were either wholly sponsored by one specific brand or by several.
This ranged from hour-long weekly shows like NBC’s “The Bell Telephone Hour” (which gloriously gave the world Groucho Mark playing the role of Ko Ko in the “Mikado”) to dedicated productions of the current hits of Broadway. Jackie Gleason went as far as to produce 10 hours of new musical numbers as part of his variety show, which would in turn give birth to “The Honeymooners.” Musicals dwindled out of fashion in the 1970s, but at the height of their power, they were a force for ratings.
One of the most notable examples of sponsored musical drawing stellar ratings was the original version of “Cinderella.” In 1957, over 100 million people saw Julie Andrews television debut on CBS. Pepsi and the Shulton Company, who at the time were the manufacturers of Old Spice, sponsored the production. While Prince Charming was not the Prince Your Man Could Smell Like in the production, they did rely on the cast and creative of the show for their spots.
Other productions, like “The Ford Fiftieth Anniversary Show”, took more of an approach akin to what “Grease” did. Ford declared that America was “A Singing Country” and let Mary Martin and Ethel Merman do the singing for the night. This production extolling the virtues of Ford to both a war and peacetime economy ran simultaneously on both NBC and CBS in 1953. One year later, General Foods would run a tribute to Rogers and Hammerstein on NBC, ABC, and CBS in honor of the company’s 25th anniversary.
With Grease having driven off into the sunset, NBC and Fox have “Hairspray” and “Rocky Horror Picture Show” up as their next productions. While one of these may be perceived to be slightly more brand friendly than the other, there isn’t a reason why there shouldn’t be opportunities for a variety of brands to get involved given the success of Grease’s integrations. The Corny Collins Show can be “Brought to you by Garnier.” Or more delightfully, when Laverne Cox’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter calls for a toast, she can be showered with Wonderbread.