IT’S an exercise in understatement to suggest the ABC has had some difficulties with its Wednesday night line-up in 2012.
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The venerable music game show Spicks and Specks had, until it was cancelled last year, apportioned the public broadcaster a high-rating anchor on which to assemble a big viewing audience.

So successful was it, Wednesdays became known as the ABC’s ”Broadway” slot.

This year, however, could be called a disaster. A succession of shows such as Randling, Outland, Nice, In Gordon St Tonight and Laid have all floundered on Wednesday nights.

It’s into this somewhat unnerving environment that one of the ABC’s most sturdy, highest-rating – and consistently entertaining – franchises returned last week. But rather than look more broadly at selling, Gruen Sweat announced itself as an irreverent four-week examination of the issues behind the way sport is advertised and marketed at us.

It’s a strong idea. In the past few years, the Gruen suite of shows has unequivocally influenced the way we perceive advertising and the tools companies use to persuade us to buy. So a juncture such as the London Olympics, when sport is permeating popular culture even more than usual, looked an ideal time to examine just how influential it is.

Last week’s debut, ambitiously pitted against the season finales of Australia’s Got Talent and MasterChef, proved the show’s audience remains. More than 900,000 watched what proved to be a strong piece of counter-programming.

Gruen was created by Andrew Denton’s production company Zapruder’s Other Films, and former Fairfax journalist Jon Casimir, who wondered why an industry worth $500 billion a year globally was not examined more often.

This year there will be four sporting-themed episodes, followed by another 10 in the Gruen Planet incarnation – which applies the show’s framework of discussing and illustrating the power of persuasion to the world of spin, PR, branding and image control.

There was much to like, however, in the first episode of Sweat last week. Hosted by comedian Wil Anderson with his two mainstays, advertising-executive panellists Russel Howcroft and Todd Sampson, a significant difference was the introduction of two athletes to the panel.

Jane Flemming and Steve Moneghetti – champions in their own right – were able to provide insight, humour and context to the marketing theories expounded by Howcroft and Sampson.

Sampson declared that the organisations sponsoring the Olympics are collectively paying the International Olympic Committee hundreds of millions of dollars to promote the International Olympic Committee.

”In the commercial world, it would be like Apple paying Coca-Cola to promote Coca-Cola,” he mused.

As it goes, the Olympics brand is second only to Apple as the most valuable in the world. So the panel eagerly dissected just how companies can go about exploiting that.

There was intriguing information relating to the thinking behind spending money as a sponsor. In typical Gruen fashion, however, many laughs were drawn out of the protectionism taken by the IOC. Elements such as London’s so-called brand exclusion zones and, most amusingly, its ”brand police” – employed to ensure members of the public do not inadvertently engage in their own brand of ambush marketing – were pursued for comedic value.

Indeed, in dissecting the construction of the world’s biggest McDonald’s outlet or the inadvertently hilarious Qantas Olympics safety videos, we were exposed to both ”sides” of the marketing equation. Sampson and Howcroft winced at what they deemed to be cheesy footage of athletes participating in a Qantas safety demonstration. Tellingly, the former athletes Flemming and Moneghetti considered it an amusing diversion.

It will be interesting to see how far the show goes in the next couple of weeks in its exploration of polarising sporting figures and their brand damage. Last week much time was devoted to both Stephanie Rice and Nick D’Arcy. Sampson’s utter disgust and outrage at the mere concept of representing D’Arcy was something to behold.

The series’ inspired closing segment – a weekly look at the worst performance of an athlete in a TV commercial – has almost limitless potential.

Sweat will surely halt the ABC’s Wednesday ratings decline in coming weeks, and the Gruen brand and its franchises have established an impressive legacy. Whereas some may have deemed advertising an annoying but necessary evil, the show has demonstrated that the ad world is often a sharp, forward-thinking and intelligent contemporary workplace.

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