Is it the beginning of the end (or the end of the beginning) for that historic American icon – the TV commercial?

Either way the possibility is already a reality, as some advertisers opt for commercial-free program sponsorship and product placement rather than traditional 30-second ad slots.

Ford, Miller Brewing and XM Satellite Radio have all sponsored shows in the last few months where advertisements have been noticeably absent but products have been prominent during the show's airtime.

This trend is slowly gaining momentum among the big four TV networks in response to viewers' mounting irritation at frequent commercial breaks. To say nothing of the growing PVR ad-skipping menace.

Ford is already a player in the game and has sponsored commercial-free episodes of Fox TV's hugely popular drama 24 and a showing of the holocaust movie Schindler's List on NBC.

Ford is now planning to sponsor an episode of NBC's 1960s era drama American Dreams which will feature the company's classic Mustang car. The deal also includes a pre-show ad and a post-show minimovie.

However, media buyers and airtime sellers are cautious. Says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, an entertainment-marketing specialist at Starcom MediaVest, advertisers must be sure a one-sponsor show is financially worthwhile because the deals usually involve buying-out expensive national time and local ad minutes.

The networks too have to be certain a single sponsor will generate as much revenue as the traditional multi-advertiser format.

David Levy, from Time Warner's TBS and TNT cable networks, says limited commercial-free sponsorship on cable shows has been discussed, but so far no one has signed on the dotted line.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff