The SNTA president is approaching the upfronts with what he feels is a powerful pitch for advertising in syndication–more likeable and persuasive personalities, more live viewing and less clutter.
Mitch Burg is out and about the country these days selling advertising on syndicated programming. Not spots, mind you, but the very idea of advertising on syndicated programming.
As president of the Syndicated Network Television Association, Burg’s job is to convince marketers and their media planners and buyers that their ad dollars are best spent with Oprah, Phil, Pat, Judy, Alex, Regis and, of course, Jerry and his ageless pals.
In this edited interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Burg discusses what he sees as the syndication advantage in the zero-sum game of national TV advertising and why its $4.5 billion share should keep on growing.
So why syndication as opposed to broadcast networks, cable networks or national spot?
What it comes down to is viewers watch programs and that’s what clients want to buy. We’re out now with a new piece of research about engagement. It’s a study called e-score and what it does is it looks at programs based upon more than 40 different attributes of the program hosts.
Obviously, with our legacy, you know our familiarity is high, but people also trust our programs. Eleven hundred respondents told us that our stars are the most trusted. They relate to them better, they’re influenced by what they say and they think that they are trendsetters.
You’re telling people that when they are buying syndication, they are buying credibility?
Yes, correct. Right now, you’re looking to make a deeper connection with a consumer. So if you can provide an environment that provides trust, relevance and influence and, frankly, tells people where the trends are going, that’s a great environment to have and that’s something that syndication delivers.
You have also been making the case that syndication delivers live viewing, that they are not taping on DVRs and watching three or four days later or maybe not at all.
Correct. We think that’s a very important point because everybody’s concerned about eyeballs on the commercial. Nielsen, in its latest research, says that 86% of our audience is viewing our programs live and can’t electronically skip the commercials. Even more interesting, the 14% who do view our programs on a delayed basis play us back faster than they do network primetime. This all means that we’re able to deliver 95% of our program audience on the same day.
Aren’t there some negative implications here? Doesn’t it suggest that syndicated programming isn’t worth taping?
No, I think just the opposite. What it says is, more than 80% of our people are watching the programs at least twice a week. These are very important programs for them. People are very loyal and, as a result of that, they’re not delaying the viewing.
You also have a study out there that says that the clutter situation in syndication is less than in network. Why is that?
You have to remember the business that the syndicators are in. It’s barter syndication and the first thing we’re doing is selling the programs for cash to the stations on a defined split.
As a result of the way we format programs, not only are our breaks shorter—I think they’re two minutes and 18 seconds on average—our exclusive national pods, which represent about 30% of our inventory, are less than 90 seconds in length.
By contrast, the [broadcast] network breaks are well over three minutes in length and the average cable break is close to four minutes. That’s a significant advantage. Viewers of syndication are staying with the programs, they’re staying through the commercial breaks and, as a result, their recall is higher.
Why isn’t there pressure to increase the commercial breaks in syndication?
We sign contracts with the stations. They know what their load is. We know what our load is.
One of the things that we talk to the members about is the importance of these shorter breaks and the importance of having more A and B positions because there’s a tangible recall advantage that comes with it.
There are almost 500,000 national car commercials in a year and the number is almost the same for restaurant commercials. That means that there’s one national commercial for almost every minute of the year. So why not put your commercial in a position where it can actually reach the right people and do it in an uncluttered environment?
Let’s talk about the upfront in general and then for syndication. What do you think it’s going to look like this year in general?
You know, I’d love to answer the question, but because we’re a not for profit, I can’t answer any questions on the record because then it looks like we’re transacting business and we would lose our not-for-profit tax status.
If you start playing that game…
That’s right, so I kind of try to stay away from that game. It’s just not worth it to be honest with you.
SNTA did away with its big pre-upfront dog and pony show a couple of years ago. How come?
It was a very well received show. What the SNTA does it does for the benefit of the entire membership. Frankly, we had one member who didn’t want to vote for it and so we didn’t have syndication day.
So what are you doing in advance of the upfront?
We are out there aggressively. Last week, I did something like seven meetings with specifically targeted clients and their planning agencies to share this new presentation that we have on engagement. They’re group meetings where we’ve had as many as a dozen people, but generally it’s us presenting to one, two or three people.
We talk not only about how people feel when they come to the syndication environment, but also how they behave and the fact that we’re being viewed live, the fact that they’re staying through the commercials breaks and the fact that we deliver a higher recall.
What’s the big objection that you hit?
Sometimes, there’s just a lack of knowledge. I’ll give you an example. Some people are not aware that syndication can change copy. We traffic just like everybody else does. We traffic Wednesday the week before. We could change copy with two to three days notice across the board and, in the case of shows like Entertainment Tonight, it might even be one day. People think that it is weeks, which I guess might have been true at the beginning of time, but it’s not true today and it hasn’t been true for years.
Is there a more a fundamental objection to syndication, that, for instance, it’s not as glitzy as primetime?
Let me answer the question this way: If it’s not as glitzy as primetime, why is Oprah doing four primetime specials? Why does Phil do two shows? Why was Ellen DeGeneres the host of the Academy Awards?
And let’s correct another misperception: 70% of our programming in terms of hours and GRPs are in first-run syndication.
What you’re saying is, syndication is not a rerun medium.
That’s correct. We’re doing more original programming frankly than our friends in primetime. If you looked at an Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood, they’re live, first run 260 nights a year. Our talk shows on average are first run 39 weeks a year.
Many media buying companies want to change the game from program ratings to commercial ratings. How much difference would that make?
All the studies that have been issued to date say that syndication keeps the highest percentage of the program audience through the commercials breaks so that’s an advantage for us.
The sitcom lineup is not as strong as it has been the past. How does that affect syndication overall?
We still have some of the top rated sitcoms in all of national television. People are having difficulty matching the 5s and 6s of Raymond and Friends. So I’m kind of bullish on it.
I’m looking ahead this year to things like Family Guy. For adults 18 to 34, that show is it. You know, there are shows that are big ratings mainstream shows. There are other shows that are solid performers. There are other shows that actually hit quite a niche and have deeper connections with viewers and Family Guy is one of those shows.
We’ve also got Two and a Half Men coming off network, which I think is probably one of the highest quality sitcoms.
Can you talk about categories and syndication, which are hot, which are not?
We perform really well in the pharmaceutical category. We seem to be increasing in sales in the automotive category and wireless category. Certainly packaged goods continues to be a major spender in syndication.
Pharmaceuticals, that’s interesting. National spot can’t seem to crack that nut. Why are you having success there, but not spot?
I don’t know. I think it’s the programming mix. We have programs that skew young, we have programs that skew older and we seem to fit niches that hit that category. And we also, frankly, do it with lower clutter.
What is your big challenge? Who’s not using syndication that should be using it?
We’d like to see our automotive business increase. We’re delivering at a higher incidence car shoppers, people who intend to buy a car over the next year. Retail is really where the whole traffic question comes up frequently.
So right now you don’t think you’re getting your fair share of the retail money?
There are targeted accounts we’d like to see increase their participation.
When you talk about retailers are you talking about Wal-Mart?
Wall-Mart is actually a very strong spender in syndication. Sears does very well with us and Kohls started spending with us last year.
So who are the recalcitrants?
Target is a recalcitrant account. I’m going out to see Target at the end of the month.
Consolidation among the syndicators has shrunk your membership down to five. Over the years, Sony has steadfastly refused to join. Any chance it may change its mind?
That’s a good question of [Sony Pictures Television President] Steve Mosko.