March/April 2013
Volume 33 No. 2

March/April 2013
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My Two Cents

Pick up any TV trade publication from the past 30 years and you’ll be reading about today’s problems. Or flip through the story in VideoAge’s January 2013 Issue concerning international program acquisition executives and sellers and you’ll be reading about a recurrent problem.

By the way, this particular story made me realize how little coverage trade publications give to content buyers, busy as we are courting the favors of advertisers. And yet, theirs are voices that need to be heard, not only because by giving them coverage we can truly say we are the mirror that reflects what’s out there, but also because buyers can offer new ideas for ways of doing business.

For example, reading the complaints from buyers that some international distributors don’t understand their programming needs brought to mind the idea that one way to improve sales is to do what U.S. distributors used to do in the good ol’ days of their domestic syndication business.

At that time, a syndicator was your stereotypical dapper traveling salesman (there were very few women then) who — in a suit showing off his handkerchief drooping from the breast pocket (the puff fold), a collar pin underneath the knot of the necktie and wearing a pinky ring — visited local TV stations trying to wiggle out with a 30-minute time slot from the program or station manager.

While senior syndicators made the calls to the top 10 markets, visiting cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, junior sales people were given TV markets in the 120-plus range like Macon, Georgia, where the best restaurant in town was McDonald’s. But there were perks for these newbies, because they traveled on generous expense accounts and could even add the dry cleaning bill for home window curtains to the company’s bill.

Though cleaning window drapes was optional, no dapper salesman could go on calls without the videocassette of the show to sell and several charts, because the task on hand was to demonstrate to the TV station’s program manager that the ratings of a particular time-slot could be improved with his first-run or off-net show.

In those days, the salesman was required to have memorized the station’s non-network schedule (if an affiliate), its weak rating spots and its local advertising market. The type and content of the show he was selling was incidental. The goal here was to demonstrate how the TV station could make more money with his show. Naturally, the license fee was in accordance with the time slot he was able to carve out, with access time (the period before primetime) demanding more money than a morning or afternoon slot.

International distribution, on the other hand, was born differently and basically never evolved. In the beginning buyers used to cherry-pick series episodes. Later they took full episodes, but never involved the seller in the scheduling process.

However, now that buyers around the world are seeking more involvement from sellers in order to reduce costs and receive more targeted proposals, perhaps it’s time for international distributors to borrow pinky rings from the old U.S. syndicators and start to sell time slots. In my view, the days of selling a show without knowing where it will end up are numbered. For example, if a station cannot renew a show at the original license fee by agreeing to a less prominent time-slot, the station could reduce costs and the distributor could make an easy sale.

Knowing the stations’ needs will not only improve sales, but could also increase license fees, because it’s one thing to schedule a show in the middle of the night and another to air it in primetime.

Dom Serafini

P.S. For those who like to wear a breast pocket handkerchief, the Edwardian-era stylebook required that it should not be worn with a tie, but with an open neck shirt. Modern stylebooks, on the other hand, state that a tie and a breast pocket handkerchief should never match. Finally, purists demand refraining from wearing a saw-tooth pocket-handkerchief, unless one is Prince Philip.