A Race for the Ratings
TV, radio rev up their programs
By Tom Sowa
It’s the big May sweeps, and in case you hadn’t noticed, there’s a race going on.
Competition for viewers and listeners is reaching a fever pitch among TV and radio stations in Spokane and other major markets in the United States.
The sweeps are the ratings periods conducted by national research companies to determine who’s watching which TV stations and listening to which radio stations.
Ratings amount to money, pure and simple. Good ratings are good news for stations, which can charge more for advertising time. Bad ratings mean big trouble.
It’s the time of year when local TV reporters’ faces smile from ads on the sides of buses, and when radio stations give away cars, trips, hidden booty, VCRs or cash.
It’s also the time of year when radio stations promote themselves on TV, and TV stations advertise on the radio.
The rush of promotion may seem overwhelming now but it used to be worse. Five years ago, radio stations had to go through four-week sweeps, not the 12-week ratings period they now face.
With only four weeks to win or lose ratings, stations tended to try wilder and crazier promotions. To cut down the hype, the Arbitron Ratings Co. lengthened the spring ratings period. It runs from mid-March to mid-June.
TV promotions still are measured in four-week stretches, but they’re conducted four times a year, compared to twice yearly for radio stations.
Why the furor? This period’s “book” – the industry term for the ratings that will be published in July – is all-important in setting advertising rates for the rest of the year.
The May ratings, according to Dennis Williamson, general manager of KREM-TV, determines the advertising rates for fall and winter, the most lucrative times of the year for stations.
It’s the same story with the radio station ratings battle. The next 12-week book doesn’t begin until September, making the spring ratings crucial to establishing advertising rates for later this year.
Spokane, the 76th most-populated metropolitan market in the U.S., is considered above average in broadcast media competitiveness. While the population of the area has generally held constant, the number of radio and TV stations has increased in the past three years.
And with those extra players comes higher stakes and heavier use of promotion to win a piece of the ratings pie.
Spokane’s TV stations use a variety of ways to call attention to their efforts. Money is spent on both major and minor cosmetic improvements. And every station tries hard to look like a smooth-working, highly professional organization totally devoted to its audience.
Joe Fellhauer, director of marketing and promotion at KREM-TV, admits Spokane is a competitive market, “but I wouldn’t call it extremely competitive like one of the major cities such as L.A. or Chicago.”
Fellhauer came to Spokane last fall from Los Angeles to work at KREM. One of his first tasks was to organize a campaign for the February sweeps. That campaign – pitching KREM as “the news leader” – probably helped the station overtake KHQ for overall leadership in Spokane’s newscast ratings war.
For the spring sweeps, Fellhauer has “freshened up” and modified that promotional game plan, which he says is to show viewers, “If we call ourselves the news leader, we’d better be able to prove it.”
In spite of all the effort and time spent in making each station look distinct, the three Spokane network affiliates generally follow the same promotional tactics.
To hype its evening newscast, KREM, KHQ and KXLY all adopt the sweeps’ miniseries format. All three exhibit a fondness for bringing out three-, four-, or five-part stories on contemporary issues – such as KREM’s planned effort on high insurance or KHQ’s series on child sex abuse.
Series like these seldom appear during non-sweeps periods, admits Fellhauer. Their advantage to the station is clear: They give the stations something concrete to build a promotional “news” campaign around.
KREM, KHQ and KXLY use 30-second radio spots to promote their evening newscasts. KSKN and KAYU, which don’t have news programs to promote, rely on hawking their 8 p.m. movies or their early evening comedy series.
KREM’s Fellhauer says radio advertising is the most cost-effective method of reaching audiences within the Spokane ADI – the “area of dominant influence” used by Arbitron and Nielsen in measuring overall TV watching here.
The Spokane ADI – covering 26 counties in this region – is one of the country’s five largest areas in total size, as opposed to population.
“Your on-air TV promotion is the primary tool you have. But after that, radio is the next most important method,” explains Fellhauer.
Radio advertising, theoretically, also allows the TV stations to target the audience they want to reach. Placing spots on stations like KDRK, KGA, KJRB, KQSP or KKPL makes the most sense, says Fellhauer, as they are the ones with audiences between the ages of 25 and 49, the group with the most spending money.
KXLY has decided, he says, that billboard and bus advertising is generally not cost effective.
While TV stations can trot out their best movies and news series during the ratings period, the area radio stations don’t have that option. Their chief audience-getter is – and always has been – merchandising.
While a number of area stations can say they promote actively all year, no one would deny that the heaviest period of giveaways and cash-prize contests occurs during the sweeps.
While some local radio stations do promote 12 months of the year, the bulk of active promotion occurs during ratings. “I’d say it’s rather coincidental, isn’t it, that most stations here do their advertising during ratings,” says Bill Hockett, general manager of KEYF-FM, the newest entry in Spokane’s radio market.
Hockett says his plan during the next six weeks will be an aggressive, all-out effort to call attention to the new station.
“I went to our agency (Clark White and Associates) and told them I want to make as many people aware of our station in the shortest amount of time,” Hockett says.
Hockett’s campaign begins today for the station – which the owners call “101, Gourmet FM,” and which will rely on a “taste it” musical-menu approach.
Hockett says a lot of money will be spent – up to several hundred thousand dollars on billboards, bus signs, newspaper ads, and radio and television spots.
The TV spots, in particular, will be major prime-time purchases. “We wanted to advertise during ‘The Cosby Show’ and would have, no matter how much it cost, if they hadn’t already been sold out until October,” says Hockett.
Short of dishing out bushels of cash or starting a new station, what’s a radio station promotion director to do for impact in the market?
Well, there are always gimmicks. Two weeks ago, for instance, KZZU trotted out one of radio’s old standbys, the staged “suspension” of its morning announcers Jim Arnold and Craig Johnson (“The Breakfast Boys”). With much ado, the station’s general manager apologized to the public for alleged bad taste on the part of Arnold and Johnson – who are known for practically nothing but bad taste and wisecracking during their popular 6 to 10 a.m. show.
Three days later, after many listeners took the matter in total seriousness, Arnold and Johnson came back on the air, hosting a 36-hour marathon.
Gimmick or not, the ploy seemed appropriate to the station, which has done strongly in this market by following a strategy of “never doing the obvious and always trying to give people something to talk about,” says Bruce Deming, KZZU’s promotion director.
Wednesday, May 7, 1986