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WSAZ admits covering over commercials

May 28, 2001  •  Post A Comment

An NBC affiliate in West Virginia is being accused of a sales practice that potentially misled television advertisers and violated Nielsen guidelines.
WSAZ-TV, serving the Huntington-Charleston, W.Va., market, is accused of “covering over” spots that were expected to run throughout its entire market with other commercials that ran in separate, cable-delivered news feeds targeted at only one part of the same market.
“We had a traffic error, and a national spot got covered-maybe more than one got covered,” said WSAZ General Manager Don Ray, who emphasized that he was still investigating the extent of the problem, but that any advertisers who were covered over “won’t have to pay for anything.”
A Nielsen official in New York did confirm that the rating service had seen tapes demonstrating that some WSAZ local commercials had been covered over during the first three days of the May sweeps. The official said Nielsen told WSAZ to stop the practice and that for the May 2001 rating book WSAZ would be “double-line reported,” appearing as “WSAZ and WSAZ+.”
The specific charges lodged by WSAZ’s competitors were outlined for Electronic Media by Edwin Groves, general manager of both WCHS-TV, the local ABC station, and WVAH-TV, the local Fox station.
According to Mr. Groves, the NBC station’s local newscast is “split,” so that “if you’re in Huntington, in the western part of the market, you see Huntington news; if you’re in Charleston, the first seven minutes of their local news is more Charleston-based.”
According to Mr. Ray, WSAZ has been “splitting the feed” for about five years now but only experimented with selling “hyper-local … very limited inventory on a very limited basis” for approximately two weeks in April and early May. WSAZ splits its “Today” cutouts at 7:25 a.m. and 8:25 a.m., as well as its 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. newscasts, Mr. Ray said.
According to Mr. Groves, he heard last month that his NBC competitor was selling a Charleston-only package, so he had his two stations tape both NBC station feeds simultaneously.
“Sure enough, we found them covering up one spot with another, and [we] went to Nielsen with it,” he said. “We figured out that they’d been taking a spot that they should’ve been selling for a 100 dollars in Huntington, then turning around and selling the same spot in Charleston for 50 dollars and covering up the 100-dollar spot.”
Those tapes of his competitor that Mr. Groves commissioned eventually were sent to Nielsen. According to a Nielsen official, “[When] we got the proof, we told [WSAZ] that was not legal to do.”
According to the Nielsen official, WSAZ claimed not to know the practice was illegal and promised to stop it.
While Mr. Groves also charged that national as well as local spots were covered over, and Mr. Ray confirmed the likelihood that at least one national spot was involved, the Nielsen official wasn’t able to confirm that had happened. “We don’t have any proof that [WSAZ] covered national spots,” the Nielsen official said. “Basically, [the station] has a satellite, WZAS, but the signal is extremely low, and hardly anyone can receive the over-the-air signal, so what they’ve been doing is providing advertisers a nonbroadcast fiber feed to [cable operator] Charter Communications. That’s where the ads were switched.”
Charter reaches the most populous county in the 61st-ranked market, Kanawha County, which has about 85 percent cable penetration, according to Nielsen. “In our rules, we do not differentiate between whether it’s over cable or over the broadcast feed, so according to our Nielsen rules [WSAZ] had to be double-lined,” the Nielsen official said.
“We may continue to be double-lined,” Mr. Ray said, “if [selling the split inventory] becomes popular with our advertisers.” He emphasized that only limited money was involved and that all advertisers involved understood the nature of the “split” in the market’s universe.
The Nielsen official, who is familiar with problems and practices in other markets, including those in the nation’s largest markets, called the West Virginia situation “unusual.”
According to the Nielsen official, the “competitors [in the market] pretty much drove [us] crazy about this, and I can understand why: When you combine a [rating book] line, you’re combining whatever rating points [WSAZ is] getting from the satellite, and even that cable feed, with the broadcast station. So obviously the numbers are inflated.”