KDKA-TV, the CBS owned-and-operated TV station in Pittsburgh, has been caught compressing a recent live NFL game in order to insert an extra local 30-second commercial into the broadcast. The NFL said the action was in violation of CBS’s NFL contract.
Data from Taylor Nelson Sofres’ CMR and network logs indicate that KDKA also may have been squeezing some of its daily prime-time network feed to add extra local commercials.
Furthermore, network logs indicate that at least one other CBS owned-and-operated station may have engaged in this practice during prime time.
The implications are spellbinding: It’s the specter of a network’s own local stations bowing to the financial pressures of their parent company-a publicly traded media behemoth-by increasing revenues in ways that are off limits to the network’s affiliates. Additionally, such shenanigans might violate agreements with program owners and anger national marketers.
KDKA was able to add the extra commercial during the Pittsburgh Steelers-Kansas City Chiefs football game on Oct. 25 by using Prime Image’s Time Machine, which makes it easy to take a live program, delay it to extend the commercial break and then micro-edit or reduce the remaining portion of the program to have it end on time. Local 30-second spots during the game are worth $6,000 to $10,000, according to competing TV executives in the market.
The station was caught when Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dimitri Vassilaros noticed that the game on KDKA was running about 30 seconds behind the live radio broadcast of the game he was listening to on WDVE-FM. Preferring the announcers on WDVE, he had decided to listen to the game on radio while watching the action on TV. But he was surprised to find that he would hear a play on the radio long before he saw it on KDKA.
Violation of NFL contract
The NFL was not happy when it heard what KDKA had done.
“We were alerted by someone in Pittsburgh,” said an NFL spokesman. “We contacted CBS out of national in New York. They called the station, the station admitted they were doing it, and both CBS national and local assured us it won’t happen again.
“We were concerned that it violated our NFL TV contract, which obviously means that all affiliates and the network partners must show the game live, and also we had a problem with them inserting local spots in that manner,” he said. “So that was the extent of it. We view it as an isolated incident and don’t believe it will happen again.”
According to a CBS spokesman, “There was an unauthorized use of this machine in Pittsburgh during a Steelers game a couple of weeks back, and it has not happened since and will not happen again.” He declined to comment further for this story.
But one former Pittsburgh TV executive said, “This is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Indeed, KDKA Director of Marketing Mike Gerst, asked by Electronic Media to comment on information indicating that the station has been airing one to two more local spots per night than CBS logs say affiliates are allowed, said, “I don’t think I should discuss our commercial inventory. I think [such information] is proprietary and competitive.”
Pressure to sell
In September, KDKA, which ranks second in prime time in Pittsburgh, sold about 40 percent more 30-second commercial units in prime time than did Cox-owned NBC affiliate WPXI-TV, which ranks first in the market, according to CMR data provided by a rival station. And that includes the loss of nearly a week’s worth of commercials after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
While CMR data is not, as one station-group executive said, “the gold standard in accuracy,” the data nevertheless indicates that KDKA sold a disproportionate number of prime-time spots in August as well. A much narrower gap separated WPXI-TV and Hearst-Argyle-owned ABC affiliate WTAE-TV, which ranks third in the market.
The CMR breakdowns showed WTAE sold 355 prime-time commercial units in August and 377 units in September; WPXI sold 373 in August and 390 in September, while KDKA sold 438 in August and 526 in September.
Broadcasters familiar with the Pittsburgh market said that not even Viacom Chief Operating Officer Mel Karmazin’s legendary pressure on sales staffs to get out and sell, sell, sell could account for such margins without the creation of inventory.
A former network executive familiar with the CBS-owned stations said KDKA has long and frequently covered network promotional spots with local material. A source familiar with the inner workings of KDKA’s operation said the creation of additional inventory by using the Time Machine to alter the CBS network feed is done “in several dayparts almost daily.
“It is a clear, deliberate act,” said the source.
Comparisons of network logs obtained from a CBS affiliate in another market to KDKA’s prime-time lineup on Thursday, Oct. 25, indicate that the Pittsburgh CBS O&O created an extra 30-second commercial spot within “CSI,” one of the network’s most popular (and thus salable) shows. It also showed that KDKA inserted 50 seconds’ worth of local news and weather promos into a three-minute, 50-second network position within the 10 p.m.-to-11 p.m. block.
A similar breakdown of the Friday, Oct. 26, lineup showed that what the network scheduled as a 64-second break at 8:16 p.m. (inside a “King of Queens” repeat) ran 30 seconds longer on KDKA. Just before 9 p.m., where a 64-second network break is logged, KDKA ran a 34-second local news promo, a 30-second Chrysler PT Cruiser commercial and a five-second news promo, followed by a 19-second black screen and a 14-second station ID graphic.
“I find these practices absolutely unacceptable and cynical, and I do believe it is an example of the worst of us,” said Jim Hefner, president and general manager of Pittsburgh rival WTAE, who added that such practices would be unacceptable at Hearst-Argyle stations.
“It’s such a grievous violation,” said John Howell, VP and general manager of Pittsburgh competitor WPXI, who said that CMR data for the week of Sept. 3 to 9, the week before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, showed that KDKA had 4,730 seconds of prime-time commercial inventory, whereas the more watched WPXI showed 4,285 seconds.
“That’s a minute or two a night, plus some,” said Mr. Howell. “It’s the kind of thing I could lose my affiliation for. You can’t shrink a program and put a spot in accidentally.”
Using CBS network logs, a comparison between the network feed and prime time on WJZ-TV in Baltimore indicates that the CBS-owned station added five spots to the regular lineup Monday, Oct. 29 and Tuesday, Nov. 1. For example, what the network scheduled as a 64-second break midway through “Becker” was a 154-second break on WJZ.
WJZ did not return phone calls.
The full history and extent of such practices within the CBS-owned stations group is difficult to determine. Some executives who’ve left the group in recent years said they never heard of any such thing, and numerous sources with a long knowledge of CBS stations said it never happened before Westinghouse acquired the network in 1995.
During the Westinghouse era, longtime Group W executive Jonathan Klein was head of the CBS Television Stations group, then considered by far the weakest of the major network O&O groups.
Mr. Klein, who retired in mid-1999, had decided in 1998 to pre-empt access programming staples on CBS’s 14 O&Os to run infomercials. While the decision, widely considered to have been a shortsighted public relations blunder, may have put a much-needed $2 million into the station group’s pocket, it hurt the its image and may have undercut the network by gutting CBS’s prime-time lead-ins in major markets.
One longtime station executive believes that John Severino-Mr. Klein’s successor in the Viacom era-and CBS President Leslie Moonves became aware in mid-1999 that the company’s newly purchased KEYE-TV in Austin, Texas, was creating extra local inventory in network programming. At the time, this station executive alleged, CBS brass chose not to order the station to end
the lucrative practice.
Such easy revenue, “is like drugs,” said the station executive. “You can’t get off it if you get on it.”
Indeed, sources familiar with the CBS O&Os said the purchase of Time Machines spread during the late-’90s, and they are now in use across the board within the group, sometimes being employed to add a local 30-second spot midway through venerable moneymaker “60 Minutes,” thus forcing a reduction of the second half of the show that opens with a ticking stopwatch.
Mr. Klein told EM last week, “I really don’t know anything about that. I really don’t want to talk about it and there isn’t anything to talk about.”
Mr. Severino said he had never heard of a Time Machine or of adding extra local commercials using any technology.
Among the people interviewed, there is debate about how aware Mr. Karmazin is of any local creation of prime-time inventory.
“There’s so much pressure from Mel,” said an alumnus of the CBS stations group, “to do whatever you’ve got to do.”
There is con sensus that his legendary demands for increased revenues in any division he supervises has produced a culture in which practices that were not so long ago unacceptable become standard.
At NBC, live is live
Once word spread that KDKA had added a local spot during an NFL game, a member of the CBS affiliate body asked the network whether the affiliates could also add spots. He was told that all CBS-owned stations were told to stop the practice in all dayparts, according to one station group executive.
Ray Deaver, the president and general manager of Gray Communications’ KWTV-TV in Oklahoma City and current president of the CBS affiliates body, said if his station were to make itself some extra commercial time within network programming, he would be in violation of his affiliate agreement.
“We’re contractually obligated to carry it as it comes from the network,” said Mr. Deaver.
Steve Doerr, senior VP of programming for the NBC owned-and-operated stations, said, “At the NBC stations, we run live programming live.”
A number of people in the TV and advertising industry think that stuffing more commercials into programming also exacerbates the increasing problem of clutter.
“Yes, I would have a big problem with a adding local spots by using Time Machine technology,” said Jean Pool, president of operations for media agency Mindshare. “Beside the clutter issue, I think it would be illegal if you altered either programming or other commercials without the knowledge of those who own that material.”