Marketing | Environment | Culture

Thoughts on Marketing from Inside Local Television Stations

I just ended a 14 year run in local television marketing and promotion that took me from Grand Rapids to Chicago back to Grand Rapids to Colorado Springs.  My short description of the work: running an in-house agency to build brands, drive viewership, and increase our overall standing with all stakeholders.  So, my side was the business-to-consumer marketing that results in business-to-business selling of audiences (basic content around advertising model).

I’ve greatly enjoyed the first decade and a half of my career.  I’ve worked for some great companies and done excellent work with wonderful people.

Here are some thoughts and observations from my experience in the local media industry.  They’re focused primarily on traditional television broadcasting, rather than multi-platform content distribution and marketing.

These thoughts and observations are simplified and bullet-pointed.  I’m happy to elaborate upon or talk through any of this in more detail.  Use the Connect with Ethan page to find me – or just leave a comment on this post.

TV set, television set, t.v., tee vee, boob toob, boob tube

What a TV looked like when my career began. (Image from Photobucket user alex54j )


Working in Local TV Marketing and Promotion is Fun

  • It’s a nice combination of creativity and strategy.
  • You get to work extensively with words and ideas.
  • You get to create and manipulate images, both still and moving.
  • You get to work with music, sound effects, and natural/ambient sound.
  • Promos are always more exciting than the news packages – you get to pack all the best video and sound into :30!

The Work Itself is There, Then Gone

  • This is a basic function of linear broadcasting.
  • The display of your work is immediately fleeting and the work itself is highly perishable.
  • You get plenty of immediate gratification; what you just made can be put on TV within minutes.

Marketing to Anonymous Masses Provides Limited Satisfaction

  • The ability to track and measure, to connect directly efforts to results, is weak.  Research budgets are limited.  Nielsen’s measurements of viewing behavior are (insert adjective with negative connotation here).
  • In short, it’s more art than science.
  • Very few people like advertising.  It’s an interruption of what they’ve come to see or experience.
  • Nearly everyone wants and expects content and marketing to be increasingly personalized and customized (rightfully).
  • Television broadcasting is linear and monolithic, not personalized or customized.
  • It’s impossible to be consistently relevant, and therefore satisfying, to a mass of people.
  • That’s because they’re not a monolith; they are individuals who happen to be consuming the same media at the same time.
  • Tools like Facebook have taken phone call and email feedback to a new level that approaches direct relationships.  Even those individuals, though, tend to be treated as a mass.

Local News is Very Static and Homogenous

  • Every station has pretty much the same stories as one another and the same kinds of stories every night.
  • Every newscast provides pretty much the same experience it did a decade ago … but shinier.  It’s predictable.
  • Locally, this is in part due to stations all watching each other.
  • Nationally, this is in part due to all stations being consulted by the same handful of consultants.
  • Overall, this is because “news” is defined rigidly by the journalistic institution.
  • This is why ubiquitous, generic “area man” headlines from The Onion, America’s Finest News Source, work so well.
  • This is why we all immediately recognize the visual and verbal patterns in the videos that close this post.
  • The formula from which newscasts are made seems to work well enough that there’s no compelling reason to make anything more than minor tweaks and conservative decisions.  Related: newspapers have only just found their savior and his ideas don’t seem especially radical.

Financially, Local TV Broadcasting is Challenged

  • As with most businesses, costs are constantly increasing.
  • This effect is mitigated slightly by technology and automation.  The hubbing of core operations, for example, is a fundamental operating strategy for Lin Media (22 broadcast signals originating from just 2 master control centers; 100% of traffic operations run from just 1 location (see 2010 annual report, page 4).
  • Revenue is flat/declining and dominated by TV revenue.  Though it varies by station and company, I’d guess that 90-95% of revenue is still generated by television ad sales.
  • Profit margins, naturally, are tighter than ever.  A broadcast license was once a license to print money; stations enjoyed profit margins above 50%.  Though it varies by station and company, I’d guess that they’re more in the 15-20% range in a good year.
  • For a stronger future, some local news operations will have to be shut down (see above – Static and Homogenous).  This is a natural result of competition.
  • As fragmented as the media landscape is (that fragmentation fundamentally threatening the TV business), television is still the only place to find mass.  This is why network prime time shows command higher ad rates, despite smaller audiences.
  • Among the younger set, it’s cool to hate TV and its advertising.  However, Apple loves it!  Go figure.
  • Television still enjoys an amazing windfall from political advertising.

Local Television Advertising’s Effective, But …

  • Is it cost effective?  By migrating dollars into other channels, the large-scale, sophisticated television advertisers say no.
  • I just finished Joseph Jaffe’s Life after the 30 Second Spot, published in 2005.  At the time, DVRs were the threat to effectiveness.  Forms of digital capture and distribution have increased dramatically in the past 6 years.
  • Digital pureplay companies offer relatively inexpensive marketing and advertising options … and they’re 100% trackable.
  • With inexpensive tools to create and publish yourself, “every company is a media company.”  There’s less need to pay for exposure.
  • Some traditional TV advertisers have flipped the situation upside down, selling advertising themselves.

Local Television Stations Are Important

  • Local television stations have incredibly strong brands.  They’re local instituions.
  • They inform, prepare, and connect people; they provide a sense of local identity and community.
  • People take your calls when you tell them you’re calling from a local TV station.
  • The role and responsibility of the best local news and weather teams will continue to be important, no matter how distribution changes.  The challenge there is to stay relevant day-to-day, rather than simply being a go-to place in times of crisis.
  • High definition television signals are free for the taking – and they’re the cleanest form of television signal.

In Summary

I’m grateful for all the opportunities this industry has presented me and the dozens of excellent humans who helped me along the way.  I hope for the best for the individuals who make the industry.

As you might expect, I’ve got many more thoughts, feelings, and ideas.  I’m happy to have a threaded comment conversation, a real conversation, or an email exchange about any of this.

My Local Television Employers

Related Posts at

Upside Down: Traditional Advertising Relationships

Good News: You Get to Decide What’s News!

Broadcast Television: In Praise of a Relic

Our Nation’s Common Medium: Why Just One?


Bonus Videos
Both employ coarse language. The first is more slowly paced. The second is more direct and more coarse. Both employ the immediately recognizable patterns to which I referred earlier in this post.





  1. mackmclaughlin


    Great post, enjoyed working with you in TV and look forward to the next Chapter.

    I’m thinking Social Media will be a big boon to Local Broadcasters if they embrace it and use it to Truly Engage with their Audience.

    A few of the issues you mentioned for Broadcasters that might be solved.

    The Work Itself is There, Then Gone

    With sites like YouTube great Promos,Ads and News Stories will have a life of their own beyond their initial run.

    Marketing to Anonymous Masses Provides Limited Satisfaction

    With Social TV the Audience is no longer Anonymous, have you seen KOMU’s use of Google + Hangouts with Co – Hosts from around the globe?

    Local News is Static and Homogeneous

    Social TV is anything but Static if you really Engage with your Audience you get an opportunity to really dig deeper and report on stories that aren’t all Me Too, and with Live interaction you never know for certain where it might lead.

    Financially, Local TV Broadcasting is Challenged

    Too early to tell if Social will add revenue but it does seem to be bringing people Back to watching TV in Real Time and Engaging with their Friends which advertisers are watching closely.

    Local Television Advertising’s Effective, But …

    Social will be much easier to track the metrics of the viewers preferences and with some clever embedded QR codes and other tracking you will know instantly if a consumer has watched your ad and Engaged with your product.

    Local Television Stations Are Important

    Yes they are as witnessed again recently with the Hurricane coverage.

    I hope that with the new Social Tools in their work box, Stations will dig deeper and produce more Local Stories as I heard when I asked the Students at WKU recently what Local News could do to get them to watch, they wanted deeper stories available to them via Twitter or Facebook, allowing them the opportunity to go check out the stories they care about, and they want to be heard, so if they Engage via Social Sites, be sure to Engage back.

    For now they won’t be linear consumers of News but they will read and watch a Great story, well told just like the rest of us.

    Hope things go well #9

  2. Matt Payne

    Hey Ethan,

    I’m glad you wrote this. Since we’ve had many conversations on our hikes about this journey you are on, this was a fun read for me. I think you are very bright and I love reading this stuff, even though I know nothing about TV or Marketing (formally anyways). Good stuff to ponder and discuss. I believe that the above poster has some good thoughts too. Social media is taking us places and most of us, TV broadcasters included, don’t really fully understand how to utilize it. I actually see social media as a mechanism that sometimes drowns out quality. There’s a lot of noise in social media. What would be nice is for people / companies to find a way to filter the noise.

  3. Jason Batts

    Nice post, Ethan…

    If I could just add one thing;

    Television station general managers, news directors and creative directors are constantly asking and pushing for marketing that could be described as “emotional branding”. They want their image promos to look and feel like those of the most successful and savvy marketers out there (nike, apple, etc.) But yet they never fail to grasp the concept that they actually need a compelling, unique product to sell before the promo can ever be conceived. They all want us to make spots with which the viewer can connect, but they never figure out that the product they’re selling has to deliver in order for the promo to be effective. IPAD commercials wouldn’t work if the IPAD wasn’t actually cool itself. They wonder why marketing efforts don’t work and look to blame the creative folks behind them, but they never come to realize that they don’t work because they’re selling a bad product.

    Best of luck to whatever it is you’re doing now instead. Hope to join you soon in TV promo retirement.

  4. Ethan Beute

    Good comments, gentlemen, and thanks for reading.

    Yes, Mack, there’s great potential in social engagement. The primary gap that exists right now, though, is that 95% of monetization of effort is in the linear broadcast. I’m not sure that the social efforts will bring people to the linear broadcast, rather than train them that they no longer need it to get the content they seek. Qualifier: there are definitely examples of live, entertainment programs benefiting from social engagement.

    Other related thoughts:

    KOMU is definitely a darling right now.

    Really bad weather and crazy breaking news will continue to bring people to live television for years to come.

    The default mindset seems to treat fans and followers as a monetizable mass, rather than as individuals with whom you should connect and engage.

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