“AH-HA!” That, for non-fans, is the indelible catchphrase of Alan Partridge, the hapless TV and radio presenter character created by Steve Coogan. As fans will know, Norwich’s finest has for the past few months been appearing in a new show, “Mid-morning Matters”, set on a fictional radio station North Norfolk Digital.

It’s classic Partridge: absurd, obnoxious, utterly artless and offensive, but well-meaning and somehow tragic. It’s also possibly a frightening glimpse into the future of commercial radio in a DAB age.

But more interestingly from a media industry perspective: It’s not on TV. Mid-morning Matters is only available (so far) on YouTube.

Instead of being funded by ITV, Channel 4 or, as with previous Partridge incarnations, the BBC, Aussie beer brand Fosters has stumped up the cash to cover the production in return for having its name in the title and a discrete logo in the video. It’s all part of Fosters’ attempts to position itself as a fun brand – this is one of several comedy sponsorship deals.

Coogan’s production company Baby Cow is dealing directly with a sponsor – so there’s no corporate media middle-men or broadcasting execs to bargain with. Guardian media editor Dan Sabbagh provided a good run-down of how the deal works last year, but here’s my take on why this matters and is a sign of things to come…

The brands are the commissioners

Publishers should be aware that increasingly, brands and advertisers don’t need them. Yes, the national press sell 12 million copies a day, and yes, X Factor still attracts 17.7 million viewers to a single TV show. Mainstream media isn’t in crisis at all – but it should be aware that the “talent”, as broadcasting luvvies say, will go wherever the best deal is and wherever creative visions survive intact.

Digital can lead to physical products

Interestingly, the online Partridge series will its way onto TV screens: Baby Cow plans to both sell the series to overseas and terrestrial broadcasters (packaging the 12 minute episodes into a 30 minute programme) and sell it as a DVD. As Baby Cow’s Henry Normal told the Guardian: “I don’t want it to be too successful,” meaning he doesn’t want every Partridge fan to have seen it, so there is a target audience for future transmissions and DVD sales.

Comedian Peter Serafinowicz‘s sketch show was axed after one series but thanks to the audience he built up through posting clips of the show on Youtube, FunnyorDie.com and his own site, the show was released on DVD and ironically became one of the fastest-selling DVDs of 2010. The TV show’s ratings weren’t great, but for an internet audiece Serafinowicz is perfect.

Superfans don’t care how they watch

This project wouldn’t work – or would have a far greater chance of failure – with an unknown character. But Partridge, with its cult status and multi-award winning script writer Armando Iannucci, has an existing fanbase hungry for all the Alan it can consume. As long as its new and funny, whether it’s on TV or not doesn’t matter.

That has implications for lots of existing TV intellectual property (IP): successful writers may choose to sidestep the commissioning process entirely with sponsorship deals like this, or perhaps through direct payments or even a freemium model. I don’t think we’re there yet, but will there come a day when BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Sky have to convince writers that their creativity won’t be curtailed, in an attempt to attract the best ideas and talent to the small screen?