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And Now ‘Sunday Night’ Belongs to Michelob Too

You’ve heard the ad line everywhere--"The night belongs to Michelob.” But maybe the real question is--does rock ‘n’ roll belong to Michelob too?

When it comes to pop music, it’s hard to imagine a product with more superstar marketing clout than Michelob’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch.

Genesis appeared in a TV commercial featuring its hit single “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight.”

Stevie Winwood’s current hit, “Don’t You Know What the Night Can Do?,” began life as a Michelob beer commercial.

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Eric Clapton even re-recorded his old hit, “After Midnight,” so it could be used as a Michelob ad (even though he now admits he was drying out in a detox clinic by the time it hit the airwaves).

What’s next? Not content with seeing the name of its best-selling beer on banners in rock auditoriums across the country, Anheuser-Busch has taken aim on new territory--rock television. The obvious arena--MTV--is closed to anything beyond commercials. The video network refuses product plugs in its video clips.

So, Anheuser-Busch has made a bolder move. The company has bankrolled its own pop-music TV show, which debuts tonight at midnight on KNBC-TV Channel 4 and other NBC-owned stations.

The show’s hip pedigree is impeccable. Its executive producer is “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels. Its hosts are Squeeze pianist Jools Holland and Grammy-winning sax player David Sanborn. So far, artists who have committed to appear include such luminaries as Paul Simon, Mark Knopfler, Randy Newman, James Taylor, Bobby McFerrin and Boz Scaggs.

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Best of all, Anheuser-Busch has to love the title: “Michelob Presents Sunday Night.”

“Michelob was brought in by the people who originally packaged the show,” “Sunday Night” producer John Head said by phone from New York. “They (Michelob) basically pay for the whole show. I also believe they get to run ads in four of our six commercial segments.”

According to Head, NBC has made a commitment to 12 shows. If the program has solid ratings by early November, he expects to have a green light for 25 more episodes.

Head acknowledged that Michelob’s brand-name involvement inspired a certain amount of debate. “There were discussions, certainly,” he said. “The only sensitive area really was having their name above the title. We just hope it doesn’t have an adverse effect on our ability to attract the caliber of musicians we want. But so far, Michelob has been very cooperative--they haven’t interfered at all.”

According to Head, who co-produced Rolling Stone’s 20th anniversary TV special last fall, “Sunday Night’s” aim is to present pop music with wit, informality and virtuosity. “We’re trying to do a music show with sense of humor, but also one that avoids the rut of just having pop stars coming on to plug their latest hits. We’re staying away from that plug mentality completely. In fact, the whole idea is to pair up musicians who don’t normally get to play together and see what new ground they can cover.”

With that in mind, Head said visiting stars will be asked to perform with the show’s house band--or team up with like-minded players. Upcoming pairings include Randy Newman playing with Mark Knopfler, James Taylor with Milton Nascimento, Ruth Brown with Ivan Neville and--if schedules permit--Sting and Miles Davis.

The Big Pitch

Rock performers have been cozying up to corporate America for years. In the early 1980s, Jovan perfume sponsored the Rolling Stones world tour. Pepsi now does the same for Tina Turner and David Bowie. Soft Sheen Products is sponsoring the current Luther Vandross-Anita Baker tour. Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson appear in ads for soft-drink firms (Jackson even rewrote his hit “Billie Jean” as a commercial jingle).

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Even good causes have sponsors--Reebok is underwriting Amnesty International’s “Human Rights Now” tour at a cost of nearly $10 million. It’s even hard to tell if a group has refused a sponsorship deal, because virtually every major concert hall has a corporate tie-in. (Locally, Miller Genuine Draft sponsors the Greek Theatre and Pacific Amphitheatre concert series; Michelob does the Universal Amphitheatre and Budweiser handles Irvine Meadows.)

Is rock selling out? Is corporate sponsorship the latest sign in pop music’s descent into hype and overcommercialization? The debate rages, fueled for the most part by performers--and rock critics--whose attitudes about rock as a rebellious cultural force were formed in the tumultuous ‘60s. Neil Young’s recent single, “This Note’s for You,” blasted the trend--and got his corporate-spoof video banned by MTV.

But there’s little doubt that the majority of rock musicians--from struggling bar bands to arena-level superstars--are happy to accept some sort of corporate aid. If pop fans are outraged, they have a funny way of showing it, especially since today’s hippest pop fashion is wearing ensembles splashed with corporate logos.

Does Michelob’s swing into TV signal a new, high-rolling round of corporate pop involvement? Will Diet Coke soon have its own rock-TV show too? And would stars affiliated with Pepsi be allowed to make an appearance?

“Sunday Night’s” producers insist they have complete creative control over the show. But in today’s media-blitz world, the key to corporate advertising isn’t so much control as image appeal and sheer visibility.

“We’re seeing lots of corporations looking to TV as a potential tie-in area simply because the music marketing arena is so crowded with companies trying to distinguish their products,” said Jay Coleman, president of Rockbill, a leading entertainment marketing firm that has negotiated sponsorship deals for more than a decade. “When you have that much clutter in the concert field, the corporate players start looking for new platforms to reach consumers.”

Coleman sees late-night rock TV as a perfect venue. “These companies love late-night shows, because they can deliver such good demographics--the people who are watching are well-educated and definite opinion makers,” he said. “And for Michelob, ‘Sunday Night’ is even better, because its very title--and its music angle--reinforces the positioning of their whole ‘night’ ad campaign.”

According to Coleman, the only downside is what he described as Michelob’s “enormous investment” in bankrolling a TV show. “That’s the key question--can the show deliver the numbers to justify that kind of multimillion-dollar outlay? Even then, I’m not sure they look at this on just a (cost-per-viewer) basis. It’s a coup just to own a property where you have the sponsor’s name in the title.”

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He chuckled. “When you put your name in the title of the show--that’s what you call having a very direct impact on the viewer.”

The Metal Watch

If Tipper Gore only gets one gift subscription for Christmas, we hope it’s to RIP magazine, a delightfully outrageous rag that chronicles the wild ‘n’ wooly world of heavy metal with the same dedicated fervor that . . . well, Soldier of Fortune applies to mercenary jungle gear and home-made missile launchers. The new November issue, with Metallica on the cover, offers major features on Slayer, Iggy Pop, Ratt and Sodom, a German “death-metal” band whose members include Angel Ripper, Witchhunter and Frank Blackfire (not to mention ex-guitarist Grave Violator). However, the best stuff is the monthly features, which range from a letters page called Static (the Letter of the Month defends Metallica against angry evangelists), a metal-newcomer column called Fresh Blood and a photo teaser (this month’s shows Guns ‘N Roses guitarist Slash getting a tattoo). Best of all, RIP offers the headbanger advice column, “Dear Ma Nuge,” penned by guitar whiz Ted Nugent’s mother. Fifteen-year-old Misjudged writes: “My dad thinks I’m weird because I listen to bands like Suicidal Tendencies and Slayer, I cut words on my arms and I’ve acquired the nickname, Evil. . . .” Ma Nuge’s reply: “Keep going to therapy.” The most rad feature: a Metal Mind Tease survey, where band mates explain how they chose their group’s name. Our fave, from Sally Cato of Smashed Gladys: “Elvis Presley’s mother was named Gladys, and we figured if she gave birth to Elvis, she’s probably the Virgin Mary of rock music. And if I’d gave birth to Elvis, I would’ve certainly done something about it, like drink a quart of Southern Comfort. So I’d be Smashed Gladys.”


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