Guest Commentary: Broadcasting, rotary dials, other old ideas

Oct 14, 2002  •  Post A Comment

The other day, I was watching an old spy movie on television. The hero, an American secret agent, was on the run from enemy agents when suddenly he ducked into a phone booth to call for help. But get this: Our ultra-mod, hip secret agent, equipped with all sorts of futuristic spy gear, was placing the call on a rotary phone. You see, as odd as it looked, that old-fashioned rotary phone was state-of-the-art technology in its day.
As one who grew up with rotary phones, home milk delivery and full-service gas stations, it’s hard for me to believe that the concept of “broadcasting” hasn’t also been placed in a Museum of Outdated Concepts. “Broad” just does not work anymore. The days of a local television station’s being all things to all people are gone. And yet local stations continually cling to the myth that they can effectively reach a broad spectrum of viewers. History would seem to indicate otherwise. You can reach a broad spectrum or you can be effective, but you can’t do both.
The magazine and radio industries started out as broad, general-interest media. Publications such as Life, Look and The Saturday Evening Post as well as the once dominant middle-of-the-road radio stations were the norm. Competition, however, forced both magazines and radio to adopt unique and focused formats. Today there are even more media choices. The same volume and intensity of competition the magazine and radio industries once faced now engulfs television. To be effective in this competitive climate, a local station needs a defined format and a strong local focus.
Cable networks know how to narrow their targets. They have picked the pockets of broadcasters for years with specialized, formatted channels such as ESPN, Nickelodeon and HGTV. These “brands” are powerful, because they are unbelievably focused. Viewers and advertisers instantly know them, what they deliver, whom they serve and where to find them. They are also quite profitable.
The traditional networks can’t make the same claim. The programming on ABC, NBC and CBS is too broad to accurately define their affiliates. Furthermore, Fox has put its name on everything from regional sports channels to a cable news network, blunting what was once a useful branding tool. UPN and The WB have a limited presence on their affiliates, and UPN in particular has shifted its primary focus a number of times. Remember “Dramatically Different?”
And yet all of these networks continue to urge their affiliates to co-brand with them. Is this really in your station’s best interest? Why should you allow the network to control your image in the first place? Your network is only one of several on-air components on your station. Furthermore, the concept of placing the name of your network followed by your dial position (UPN-26, CBS-8, and so forth) does nothing to reinforce your local positioning nor adequately describe your dial position, which often varies from cable system to cable system. In the long run, it’s better to develop your own unique local brand, because it is your “niche” and your “localness” that will be the keys to your survival.
Some stations have already developed a local brand. WEWS-TV in Cleveland, for instance, has positioned itself as “NewsChannel 5,” rather than the generic sounding “ABC 5.” By adopting a definitive local news brand, WEWS is reinforcing the station’s commitment to providing timely, local information to Northeast Ohio.
But what about non-news stations? What are they doing to become relevant and competitive in the so-called 500-channel universe? In market after market, many of these stations still offer a hodgepodge of old movies, off-network sitcoms, disposable relationship shows, infomercials and programming from their part-time networks, each component chasing a different demo and rarely tied together as a cohesive whole.
For these non-news stations there is a real opportunity to effectively grab a relevant, local niche, then execute and promote it in an interesting and effective way-without the overhead of a news department. Remember, your future depends upon it. Here are recommended ways to get the job done:
Study the market: Know whom your competitors are targeting.
Pinpoint your target audience: Attack your competitors at their weakest point by selecting a demo they are ignoring.
Select your program format: Program to your target audience and only to that audience.
Phase out infomercials: Infomercials are counter-productive to the brand-building process. Devise a plan to phase them out, even if it takes a few years to “get clean.”
Localize your on-air presentation: Feature station viewers and local backdrops on promos, IDs and other on-air material. Develop lively on-air personalities. In time, produce relevant local programming.
Contest locally-continually: Contesting can form the cornerstone of a unique, fun, local brand. It also enhances sales opportunities.
Use Community Calendar as an offensive weapon: Be proactive in providing relevant local lifestyle information to your target audience.
Be visible in the community: Reach out and touch your viewers at festivals, fairs and other community events. Conduct contests. Shoot video.
Finally, tie it all together. Remember that local stations need to be local. People are proud of the place they call home. Feed off that pride. Put your community on display. Feature your viewers on air. Give them relevant lifestyle information. Conduct frequent, imaginative contests. Build relevant local programming. Make advertisers part of the fun. Target your audience. The investment in production is small in comparison with your local news-oriented competitors. A portable camera, camera operator, some editing equipment and a creative producer will put you in the game.
It’s time to time to take the “broad” out of broadcasting. Those stations with the courage and vision to develop strong, unique and local brands will be rewarded with loyalty and long-term success.
Richard Sullivan is president of TV Guru & Associates, a Northeast Ohio-based television programming and marketing consulting firm.