Squeezed shows upset agencies

Nov 19, 2001  •  Post A Comment

The American Association of Advertising Agencies has notified Viacom Television Stations Group President Fred Reynolds that the compression of programming to squeeze in extra commercials is “unnacceptable.”
A letter to Mr. Reynolds, dated Nov. 9, from Kat hy Crawford, director of local broadcast at Initiative Media and chairperson of the AAAA’s Local TV/Radio Committee, is the strongest evidence to date that Madison Avenue is very concerned about the ever-widening Time Machine scandal.
Furthermore, Electronic Media has learned that yet another station group, Raycom, has used a number of Time Machines at its stations. The Time Machine, an electronic device made by San Jose, Calif.-based Prime Image, has but one function: to electronically compress a TV signal so extra commercials can be added by local TV stations.
“We would like to go on record that if we order 10-, 15-, 30- or 60-second spots, we expect to get the full amount of time for which our clients are paying,” Ms. Crawford wrote in her letter to Mr. Reynolds. She also complained that use of the Time Machine to add extra local TV spots increased clutter, further devaluing the worth of regularly scheduled commercials.
In his reply to Ms. Crawford, Mr. Reynolds wrote, “You can rest assured the unauthorized practice of program compression is not occurring on any CBS owned-and-operated station. I can also assure you that it will not occur in the future.”
Though Electronic Media has reported widespread previous use of Time Machines at the CBS O&Os, Mr. Reynolds did not mention any past usage in his letter beyond a well-documented use of the device on Oct. 25 at KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh. A CBS spokesman declined to comment.
“My concern goes deeper than the CBS owned-and-operated stations,” Ms. Crawford told EM. “While I thank Fred Reynolds for his letter and his assurance, I really ask that all stations borrow a page from Fred Reynolds’ letter and go and assure Initiative Media and the four As that this behavior is not taking place on their stations.
Ms. Crawford is particularly concerned that when TV signals go through the Time Machine, national TV commercials don’t go through the machine as well. (The way the device works is by analyzing successive frames of a program-or a national commercial-and looking for two frames that are alike enough that one can be tossed out. If 900 frames an hour are tossed, an extra 30-second spot can be added by the local TV station.)
However, Ms. Crawford is out of luck if she’s looking for assurances that national commercials aren’t usually run through Time Machines by those stations that have use of them, according to an engineer who once worked at a CBS affiliate that had a Time Machine.
If a feed gets plugged into the device, “everything gets crunched,” he said. The Time Machine “doesn’t know the difference between programming and commercials.” He added, “The station loved doing it in `60 Minutes,’ because it was big bucks.”
Besides the CBS station group, the Granite Broadcasting Corp. stations have Time Machines. And last week it came to light that Raycom Media, the 17th-largest station group, with 34 stations, has them as well.
At least two of the Raycom stations, WXIX-TV in Cincinnati and WTNZ-TV in Knoxville, Tenn., both Fox affiliates, own Time Machines, according to executives familiar with the stations.
Fox Broadcasting told affiliates Nov. 14 that any manipulation of network programming to create additional inventory would be in violation of their affiliate agreement.
Last week’s notice to the Fox affiliates was not the network’s first warning on the subject. “They had told them not to [compress network programming] before,” said a source familiar with the sales operations of WTNZ. That station, said the source, takes much of its direction from sister Raycom station WXIX.
Just where and how often extra commercial spots were being added was not generally known within the Knoxville station, where sales staffers were told to “disregard limitations.”
A call to WTNZ’s top executive, John Hayes, who was general sales manager until his father, John Hayes, retired earlier this year, was not returned. WXIX General Manager Jon Lawhead said he is “not authorized” to talk about such matters.
Jeff Rosser, a television VP at Raycom’s headquarters in Montgomery, Ala., would not comment on Time Machine use. He said, “That’s an internal strategic effort.” However, he added, if any of the stations “were using the Time Machine on any network programming, they aren’t now.” He declined to comment specifically about the Knoxville or Cincinnati situations or on how many Time Machines have been in use within the group, which includes six Fox affiliates, five ABC affiliates, seven CBS affiliates, 13 NBC affiliates and two UPN affiliates.
Cullie Tarleton, the senior VP of television and cable for the nine station Bahakel Communication group and head of the Fox affiliate advisory board, said the use of Time Machines is “not something Fox condones, and, frankly, I agree with them.”
Mr. Tarleton said there are no Time Machines within Bahakel’s group. “I play to win,” she said, “but I’m going to play fair.”
EM also learned last week more details about use of the Time Machine at Granite Broadcasting’s CBS affiliate WTVH-TV, in Syracuse, N.Y
WTVH was running “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy!” through the Time Machine six times a week, adding an extra, unauthorized 30-second spot each day in both shows, which could have generated as much as $250,000 in revenue a year for the station, according to an executive familiar with the station.
The scheme was running smoothly, the executive said, until a viewer bought WebTV so he could play interactive “Jeopardy!” and found that he was unable to do so because he could not make his apparatus at home synch up with “Jeopardy!” on WTVH.
Of course, the viewer had no idea the reason he was having problems was the station was using a Time Machine and squeezing the content of the show so an extra 30-second spot could be added.
After complaining to the station to no avail, the viewer complained to the show’s distributor, King World Productions, demanding the situation be remedied so he could play interactive “Jeopardy!”
WTVH’s general manager was so exercised that he told one of his employees “to make this man and his problem go away, or you’ll go away,” the executive said. “But this employee was told whatever solution was found, the station must still use the Time Machine on the show.”
Eventually, WTVH stopped adding commercials in “Jeopardy!” while the heat was on. Later on, however, WTVH resumed adding 30-second spots to “Jeopardy!”
A spokesman for Granite had no comment.