Downton Abbey sponsor stings get stung by Ofcom

The sponsorship promotions wrapped around ITV’s period drama Downton Abbey have been found to break television regulator Ofcom’s broadcasting code.

The number of advert slots contained within episodes, and the “annoying Aviva” sponsor stings contained before and after every advert break had become a major pain to many fans of Downton Abbey over its past two series, and now those sponsor slots have been deemed to break the advertising codes of Ofcom which deem that sponsorship must be treated separately from regular commercials.

Sponsorship of programmes must simply state the company or product which is endorsing the programming and must not “contain advertising messages or calls to action… The focus of the credit must be the sponsorship arrangement itself.”

ITV use the best of the ‘old regional ITV’ system to their advantage when it comes to sponsorship. Channel TV manages the compliance simply because it is the smallest ITV ‘region’ and therefore its fines for breaches are the lowest.

A Channel TV response to the issue said that the sponsor bumpers were to “create a strong thematic link to ITV Drama” adding that this was carried out via “The Aviva mini-drama being played out in the sponsor credits”.

The Aviva promotions followed stories of characters who in some form had suffered an accident and the subsequent issues which the person had to deal with due to the injury. Ofcom found that some of the scenes showed the benefits of taking Aviva’s income protection policy.

“Credits must not encourage the purchase or rental of the products or services of the sponsor or a third party,” said Ofcom who found that the story amounted to an advertsing message and thus broke their broadcasting code on sponsorship credits.

Justin Mason, TV critic, told ATV Today, “It is interesting that CTV still can be allowed, by Ofcom regulation, to manage the legal requirements in order to save ITV serious money. It seems ITVplc like the best of both worlds; the old local ITV when it suits them to save money and a national ITV1… to er save money… However as they’re broadcasting as a national ITV1 maybe it is time Ofcom updated their fines procedure so ITV can’t shrink the fine by having the compliance run by the smallest ITV region.”

Had, for example, the compliance for Downton Abbey been managed by the ITV London franchise the fine for a breach would be thousands of pounds more than Channel Television could be fined. The procedure was put in place in the era when all ITV regions were independently owned and the ranking of fine devised in order to stop the smaller regions going ‘bust’. These days its generally un- necessary due to ITVplc owning all of the franchises in England and Wales, however as the system hasn’t been changed ITV still use Channel Television to deal with legal requirements to avoid large fines.

Aviva had amended the sponsorship credits for Downton Abbey before the end of the second series, however Ofcom still found the updated versions fell foul of their regulation code. “it was still clear that the character was referring to an insurance” they stated.

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