Two weeks ago today (or two weeks ago last night – still not clear), the Waldo Canyon Fire started. It’s now more than 95% contained and has been 100% contained on all Colorado Springs boundaries for several days now. It feels like a good time to organize some ideas about the local television coverage of the most destructive fire in Colorado’s history.
Nothing here is advanced as definitive. Instead, it’s a handful of my personal thoughts, ideas, observations, and opinions. I feel it’s honest, constructive, and fair.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You can build the stadium, field a team, schedule the game, arrange concessions, and sell corporate sponsorships, but if you can’t keep fans in the seats all season, season after season, what good is the game?
Answer: if it doesn’t work for the audience, it doesn’t work for anyone.
If you can't keep people in the seats, what good is the game? (Image from: theemptystadium.blogspot.com)
I received an email from a colleague at the office alerting me to a new offering from a competitor. The offering’s a new website; its url alone was enough to inspire this post. I’ll go straight to my take.
There are three primary stakeholders here: the website users, the advertisers on the site, and the company building, running, promoting, and selling the site.
This is the list stakeholders who were considered in rank order: the company themselves, their advertisers. It’s a basic selling orientation, rather than a proper customer orientation.
The website, KRDO.biz, is a combination directory, deals, and portal site from a local television station. Established competitors in this space include Google, Groupon, Craigslist, Dex, YellowPages, SuperPages, and dozens of others. And that’s to say nothing of all the local and regional competitors with similar offerings, especially in the deals space. The market’s saturated – both for audience and for advertisers.
It immediately reminded me of a site they offered up and backed with tens of thousands of dollars in local television advertising inventory a couple years ago, GColorado.com, a local classifieds site. A visit to that site today is similar to, but far less interesting than visiting a ghost town. There’s absolutely nothing on offer in most of the categories. In the common “Cars for Sale,” there are three cars. More importantly, there’s nothing the site offers that Craigslist didn’t bring to this market nearly a decade ago.
The problem: neither of these sites meets an unserved or underserved market need, solves a problem, makes something easier, delights or entertains, or provides anything unique or new. A television ad may motivate you to visit (that’s a stretch, I know), but a tired initial experience won’t bring you back. I would also add that the other audience – the advertisers – does not really have anything new in this offering, either.
Instead, the sites fit these criteria: we can definitely build it and we’re pretty sure we can sell it to advertisers.
The website users, of course, are absolutely critical to long term success. Even in the short term, though, their interests supersede those of the two other stakeholders. Yet they feel ignored in both of these offerings.
If there’s no sustained traffic, the sites will slowly die, as advertising contracts fail to get renewed. I don’t know what the fate of the directory/deals/portal will be, but the classifieds site was DOA and never found its pulse.
Entirely Different Angle
Would the same people who are building, selling, and marketing this site invest in it the project with their own money? Would they sacrifice their employment within the television operation to dedicate themselves to it exclusively? If so, there’s more at play here than I’ve observed. If not, then to whom does the offering seem viable?
My purpose here is not to denigrate a competitor. They’re not alone in their approach; this is certainly happening everywhere all the time. Bonus points do go to them for trying to open up new streams of revenue from non-television sources. And it’s not like I or the local television operation in whose employ I remain for a few weeks is aggressively and insightfully innovating online (on the upside, we remain focused on continuing to be the top-billing station and most-watched news product in the market).
Admittedly – and finally – there may be more at play than I’ve observed (I hope there is). It’s not like I’m on a “explain your underlying strategy to me” or “describe for me the finer points and assumptions of your business model” basis with these people. If the site finds success, I’ll stand corrected and be served my own foot.
The Bottom Line
For whom did you build your product or design your offering? If it’s not for a stakeholder necessary for long term success, it’s time to double back, review, and take another go at it. Or … what good is the game if you can’t keep people in the seats?
As a business, television is obviously being disrupted on at least two sides. On the viewership side, lifestyle and technology changes mean less and less appointment viewing (and commercial watching). On the revenue side, pure play internet companies with wholly measurable and cost effective solutions are creating far more competition for local advertising dollars.
In the face of this, I’m fond of saying that people will always seek and find great content and money will always seek and find people. There are, however, several significant distribution, cost structure and business model hurdles standing in front of traditional broadcasters and publishers.
Where do you look for ideas and inspiration when in need of new business models due to fundamentally disruptive threat in and around your industry? Perhaps to a former Harvard Business School innovation and entrepreneurship scholar who’s since gone real world.
Based on his involvement at Harvard and in the Newspaper Next project, Gilbert makes two fundamental points about disruptive innovation. First, only 9% of companies in disrupted industries survive the shift. Let’s be generous and double that; still, fewer than one in five traditional broadcasters and publishers will survive if historical trends hold. Second, a necessary precursor to that survival is the establishment of a separate division, physical location, profit/loss statements, sales team, content team, technology team, etc. The teams should include a significant portion of “outsiders” to the traditional, disrupted industry.
Walking the talk, Gilbert now heads up the newspaper, radio, television and digital operations of Deseret Media, which is owned by the LDS church. Certainly, the Mormon connection provides several advantages, like an automatic, worldwide audience that trusts you implicitly. Regardless, he provides a ton of excellent insight in this presentation.
Because it’s a local mobile advertising conference, Gilbert covers well SMS, mobile/geo and deals programs. In addition, though, he covers his entire turf, including the insanely well-trafficked KSL.com, among other properties.
One of the more interesting themes that runs through his full presentation is mindset, semantics, framing – changing the way you talk about something in order to change the way you perceive, understand and think about it. Listen for key phrases that he repeats to help re-frame things toward a new perception or understanding.
I highly recommend the full version, but I can only embed here the 5-minute highlights edit posted to YouTube:
Borrell used this nice content tease on YouTube to drive traffic into his site for the full presentation, which can be seen here.
Here’s a content breakdown, so you can choose an appropriate in-point, should your time be limited:
1:20 The Newspaper Next project – how disruption happened in the past, historical look, put in context of newspapers
4:10 Gilbert starts, gives up on newspapers/media, refusing to learn, 10 years of communicating same message
6:10 Digital assets – what’s under his control as CEO of Deseret Media
6:45 Parallel story of disruption in another industry (mainframe, minicomputer, personal computer)
9:30 Waves of disruption, historical media trends
10:50 Empirical evidence that’s overwhelming, inarguable and irrefutable – in the face of a disruptive threat, you must have a separate division, location, p/l, sales force, content teams, etc.
12:00 Success rate of responding to predictive threat is 9%
15:30 Red Sox Nation effect – what the web allows
17:15 KSL.com stats
18:15 How he built his team
19:30 Strategy is never more than 49% of the solution
21:30 Symbiotic relationship between trust in news product and relevance in online marketplace – driving traffic
23:30 SMS – old technology, standard across platforms, local market spend forecast
26:00 Self-serve model beneficial and NECESSARY
29:00 “Deals” strategy, why you must have one
31:10 Why disruptive technology isn’t disruptive to customers who adopt it
33:30 Why Groupon, LivingSocial and other deals advertisers are vampires or leeches
39:15 Private labeling their deals program
40:00 Only legacy asset he inherited … brand trust
42:45 Why they’re selective about deals partners – don’t take all comers – elements of good partnership
45:30 How Google ruined relationship selling
48:00 Organizational structure required to live through disruptive innovation
49:45 Q&A starts
50:10 Groupon, fund raising and brand building
53:30 TV versus radio in driving subscribers to deal signups
55:00 How the sales team is organized
56:45 Cannibalization of other digital products by deals products? No Traditional media obsesses here
58:00 Digital content production – traditional journalists’ inability to decouple story telling from medium
01:00:00 Ramping up investment in digital media
01:03:30 On trust
01:05:15 Elements, factors and design of partnerships between 3rd parties and media properties
01:09:30 Optimism for media companies
Again, I highly recommend viewing the entire piece. I’ve done so several times.
If you’re inclined, please share here anything you enjoyed, disputed or wondered about Gilbert’s presentation.
This morning I met for coffee a friend whose website I’m writing. It’s a pretty casual shop that opens at 7am; the owner was still getting everything together at 7:05am. Part of the process: firing up the music.
“I can’t think of it … what’s the radio on the internet?” she asked. “Pandora,” I immediately replied without thinking twice. “Yeah, that’s it,” she said, adding “I like Slacker, too. It’s deeper.”
Pandora’s built from the Music Genome Project, which started in 1999. In its current form with which you’re probably familiar, the website itself started in mid-2006. In less than 5 years, then, “Pandora” has come to mean “radio on the internet” on a fraction of a moment’s thought. I don’t even use Pandora and the connection is instantaneous. That’s an important and impressive achievement.
If Pandora’s growing by anything but word of mouth, social networking and maybe some online banners, I”m not aware of it. I’ve never seen an ad for it in any form.
Groupon and Traditional Advertising: Is that what it takes to be a premiere brand, a true household name?
Written by Rupal Parekh, the Ad Age piece is built on the fact that Groupon tried to buy Super Bowl ads, but settled for title sponsorship of the Super Bowl pre-game show because the in-game inventory has been sold out for months (at $2.8-3M per :30). It goes on to detail their engagement with Crispin Porter + Bogusky for creative and talks with cable networks about their new agency Starcom. It seems like they’re embracing establishment in hopes of becoming a premiere brand.
Attention traditional media: put Groupon on your “new client that’s ripe for courting” list.
Neither LivingSocial, Groupon’s chief competitor, nor Facebook, which has 50% more users at 600M than Groupon at 400M, has spent any serious cash on traditional media. Apple, on the other hand, can’t be avoided if you watch an hour of prime time network television. Google falls somewhere in between, but much closer to LivingSocial and Facebook. Microsoft also falls somewhere in between, but much closer to Apple.