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Ad shop warns Meredith

Nov 4, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Meredith Broadcasting Group is hearing from the advertising community that its stations will pay a price if they use Time Machines and other technology to create extra commercial inventory.
“Any possession and usage of this technology that does anything to alter the content of our clients’ advertising message will not be tolerated,” said a one-page questionnaire/declaration from Rubin Postaer and Associates, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based agency that buys spot commercial time in local markets for Honda and Acura, among other clients.
“By signing this communication, you therefore acknowledge that Rubin Postaer and Associates will not pay for any commercial units that air in altered programming due to the use of the Time Machine or any compression technology.”
According to the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Electronic Media, general managers are supposed to sign it and fax it back to Rubin Postaer’s office.
Copies of the letter went to stations in various markets where Meredith owns TV stations, according to executives with knowledge of the situation.
Commenting on the letter, Kathy Crawford, who is both executive VP and director of local broadcast for Initiative Media and chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies’ Local TV/Radio Committee, said, “It adds pressure. I believe that every agency out there is going to this in one way or another now that this has come up again.
“I have a call in to Kevin O’Brien,” she added, referring to the president of Meredith Broadcasting Group. “I want to hear this from him.”
As of last Friday Ms. Crawford says she had not heard from Mr. O’Brien. “We are asking [Meredith] to come out and say whether they’re using this technology in each and every one of their stations, are they going to continue to do so, and if that is the case then we will take our next step,” Ms. Crawford said.
The next step is likely to mean Meredith pays a price, whether it is a fine or the loss of business.
“It puts pressure on a media buyer to buy around a station, no matter what,” Ms Crawford said. “But it may be the only way in which the message can get across [about]employing this kind of technology.”
Marketers have serious concerns about Time Machine use, she said. One of those concerns is that the use of the devices, which squeeze programming by eliminating duplicative frames in a TV signal, means advertisers are not getting the full amount of time they have paid for. Another is that adding commercials adds clutter and mutes the message of all commercials affected.
Meredith is also said to be facing the possibility of some sort of fine from NBC, which is auditing 28 days of programming that aired on Meredith’s NBC affiliate WSMV-TV in Nashville.
This latest brouhaha over the Time Machine became public when business editor Jeremy Heidt of The City Paper in Nashville caught WSMV-TV regularly adding commercials to Peacock Network prime-time shows, including “Ed,” “The West Wing” and “Friends.” At the time Mr. O’Brien told Mr. Heidt, “Do you want a medal? What’s the point? No reaction. No comment.” Mr. Heidt also first reported about the letters from Ruben Postaer in last Thursday’s City Paper.
One source familiar with the situation said Meredith stations had been adding as much as 30 seconds per half-hour in afternoon and early-evening syndication blocks.
If a station is caught squeezing network programming, it could lose its network affiliation or the network could assess some other form of penalty.
According to another source who claimed to have firsthand knowledge of remarks by Mr. O’Brien, the Meredith Broadcasting president allegedly has said the Time Machines should be used cautiously on sporting events but did not urge caution in using it on other programming.
This source, who insisted on anonymity, confirmed EM’s earlier report that Mr. O’Brien allegedly told Meredith employees that if the stations got caught, they should pull back from using the Time Machines and then resume their use after the heat had cooled.
Mr. O’Brien declined to comment on any questions about Time Machine use at the Meredith TV stations.
Though the conversations alleged between Mr. O’Brien and his staff were supposed to remain private, reports of them had spread widely by late summer, fueled partly by indignation on the part of Meredith employees, many of whom lost their jobs after Mr. O’Brien took over the group in November 2001. Furthermore, some syndicators began checking their product, particularly that carried in early fringe and access and late fringe time periods, on Meredith stations for proof of their being squeezed.
In an analysts’ call last Wednesday Mr. O’Brien, asked about the Time Machine controversy, said, “Since this is an open call, I can’t comment directly. But I want to remind everyone that it’s not against the law or any statutes anywhere,” according to The City Paper.
He also reportedly said that he is confident that NBC will not take away its affiliation from WSMV due to the controversy.
Mr. O’Brien was eager to talk to the analysts because his operating profit is up 90 percent for the fiscal year, from $6 million to $11.3 million. Meredith also reported a 14 percent increase in revenues for its first fiscal quarter, compared with a year earlier. Meredith owns and operates 11 TV stations, including affiliates of CBS, Fox, NBC and UPN.