Some promotions are winners, some are losers and some end up with your loyal viewers in an Indonesian prison. Here’s my promised account of a travel contest gone astray–from my KDKA days.
One of the reasons I enjoy writing this column is that I like and admire smart local TV promotion. Successful local promotion is like hand-to-hand combat. There’s no heavy artillery. You’ve got to be ruthlessly resourceful to win sales and ratings.
Mind you, this macho analogy comes from a guy who once held perhaps the cushiest job in the history of station promotion. Although I’m primarily a show producer, during the late 1980s, I spent several happy years as the creative services director at KDKA, then the Group W flagship TV station in Pittsburgh, now a part of CBS. How cushy was the job? I inherited a noon news with the legendary Bill Burns that had something like a 70 share. The 6 and 11 p.m. news, anchored by Bill’s daughter Patti, rarely dipped below a 47 share. In primetime, we almost always outperformed the national CBS numbers. In other words, if they put a head of lettuce in my job, they’d have done just fine for a couple of years.
But while enviable, such market dominance poses an interesting challenge. How do you promote something that everybody knows about and most people like? Besides the meat-and-potatoes of headlines and episodic promos, we did it through a combination of aggressive public service and attention-getting stunts. For instance, in addition to schmaltzy station image spots (when did you last see one of those?) we shot an outdoor MTV music-video version and invited viewers to take part. About 5,000 people accepted the invitation, some of them sober. I also confess to a weakness for occasional mischief: we never placed outdoor ads without first researching the commuter routes of rival station managers.
Now about that travel contest I mentioned last week.
It wasn’t all 50 shares at KDKA. After 15 lucrative years as the ruler of prime access, Evening Magazine (a.k.a. PM Magazine in syndication) was showing its age—under steady assault from the tabloid fare of A Current Affair and Inside Edition. Worse, after years of promoting Wheel of Fortune as a great lead-in, a competitor hijacked Sajak who now regularly whipped us at 7:30. Having started at KDKA as an Evening field producer, I jumped at the chance to help rescue the show as its new executive producer.
After tweaking the editorial focus, story count, music, graphics and daily promos, we turned our attention to audience promotion. But after 15 years, it was hard to find a fresh gimmick that could boost both sales and viewership. So we were underwhelmed when the sales department proposed a sweepstakes to celebrate a local travel agency’s 50th anniversary. But the client upped the ante, offering to send viewers “anywhere in the world—first class.” That sparked an idea.
Instead of a straight giveaway, we launched Evening Magazine’s Where in the World Contest. Instead of merely awarding tickets like the sensible folks at KLAX Alexandria, La. (see last week’s Market Share), we added an element of suspense. Our contestants vied for a chance to throw a dart at a map of the world and—here was the hook—the winner had to agree in advance to travel wherever the dart landed.
Of course, even a decade before 9/11 we weren’t totally reckless. The winner could throw again if the dart landed on water or a country where travel was discouraged or forbidden by the State Department.
And sure enough, although the nice family man who won did his damnedest to hit Hawaii, his first dart sank in the Atlantic. The second throw splashed down again, just south of Anchorage. The third dart speared a capital city: Djakarta, Indonesia. True to their word, the winner and his wife prepared to go, armed with a new video camera with which they pledged to keep a video diary to be shared with home viewers. The travel agency grumbled a bit because first-class tickets to Djakarta cost a small fortune. But they were good sports and even let the winning couple bring along their young daughter.
Naturally we milked the promotion for all it was worth. We showed the family researching their trip, shopping for clothes, packing their bags and even saw them off at the Pittsburgh airport. We eagerly awaited the package containing their first video diary entry. It didn’t arrive.
After two days Fed Ex confirmed it had never been sent. A little concerned, we were trying to track down our wayward winners when we received a call from the U.S. embassy in Djakarta, asking whether we had sent a Pittsburgh family to shoot video in Indonesia. We confirmed this and quickly learned that our family of three had been arrested by Indonesian police. “They claim they’re spies” said the harried assistant ambassador. “They were caught taking pictures of a military base!”
To intercede, the embassy needed more information about why the family was in Djakarta. I did my best to briefly explain the contest. “Let me get this straight,” said the young diplomat, sounding rather perturbed, “They threw a dart at a map?” Clearly he failed to appreciate our scheme’s broad promotional appeal. Instead, he seemed convinced that our lucky viewers had won a lifetime stay in an Indonesian prison.
Fortunately, he persevered and a few hours later managed to spring our shaken family. It turns out they were photographing a Djakartan garden, not realizing that it bordered a missile installation. The assistant ambassador credited their release to the fact that “your contest story was too stupid to make up” and urged us to check first with the embassy before unleashing any more tourists with cameras—which I suppose is even better advice in this new millennium.
As if to prove the show biz adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, Evening Magazine’s Where in The World Contest did indeed cause a nice ratings boost, and created some fresh excitement for a show that had grown just a little bit stale. Emboldened, we decided to shake things up a bit further. We started by killing off our Phantom Diner, a restaurant critic disguised by a low fedora and a high-collar trench coat. We introduced him as usual, only to see him fall face down into a plate of spaghetti with a large knife protruding from his back. Unfortunately, a lot of children were watching and I caught hell. But that’s a cautionary tale for another day.
Market Share by Arthur Greenwald is a series on successful station promotions that appears every Monday. Next week, learn how a station in Washington state provides a real eye opener for deserving viewers, with a hot cuppa joe expressly branded by their morning team. We’re on the lookout for other good ideas for increasing local audience and revenue. If you have one (or more) to share, please write to [email protected].