MARKET SHARE BY P.J. BEDNARSKI

Obits: A New Revenue Stream To Die For

A number of companies are trying to take what has long been the local newspaper's franchise — death notices — and move them to TV, both on air and online. They all depend on partnering with funeral homes that sell the product and input information that is delivered directly to station websites.

I would like to put in a few good words for death. There’s no point being for or against it — I mean, we’re going to die — and given the recent elections there is less ambiguity about death than there is about the certainty of taxes.

Now many stations are picking up on the idea of running obits online and on air. In part that’s happening because of another death — that of newspapers.  

The most established name in this fledgling business is Boston-based Tributes.com, founded by Jeff Taylor, who also invented Monster.com, the want ad site that radically changed the classified business and poached a huge source of newspaper income. But all of them depend on partnering with funeral homes that sell the product and input information that is delivered directly to station websites.

Since 2009, Tributes has partnered with 100 stations and probably built up the most elaborate sites and mechanisms. Visitors to a station’s website are directed to the obit section, automatically generated by Tributes.com but carrying the station’s logo and style. 

Once there, visitors see the daily dead in their town, with invitations to “Leave A Memory.” Those loving, parting words get displayed for all to read.

Advertisers range from the random — I saw local ads for Toyotas and Carrier air conditioners on one site — to the deadly specific, which would include ads for monument makers and wrongful death attorneys. Tabs on the pages direct visitors to grief counseling advice and caterers 

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Depending on the site, stations keep that revenue or share it with Tributes, which principally shares revenue from local funeral homes and from its own advertisers.

Elaine Haney, Tributes president, can recite the local advertisers pretty easily: Florists, insurance companies, estate planners. And some stations, like the sites for WEWS, WKYC and WOIO in Cleveland, seem to be attracting some business. 

Besides funeral homes, Tributes works with several other sources to gather information, and its site includes classical music audio underneath some obits and an invitation to create an “eternal tribute” that can cost $250 or so, still far below what newspapers charge for a few grubby lines and a grainy photo. Those eternal tribute ads can include music, a slide show or videos, and possibly Web links.

“It’s interesting to us that for all these years newspapers have never shared revenue with funeral homes,” Haney said. “We’re trying to change that model.” 

It is hard to underestimate how much of a lock newspapers have had on obituaries. In fact, if a death happens after a newspaper’s oh-so-aptly named deadline, some funeral directors will wait a day to conduct visiting hours, when, presumably, people will have noticed.

Haney says Tributes is working on a system that makes it easy to put obits on television itself, with more information available online.  

Competitors are already there. That’s the idea behind services, one being sold by Meredith Corp.’s ONE Service and another by Overland Park, Kan.-based WeatherMetrics.

Initially at Meredith’s WNEM Flint-Sagninaw- Bay City, Mich., and now at all of Meredith’s 12 stations, the ONE Service obituaries are presented at the end of daily newscasts, with a referral to the stations’ websites, which contain more information.

WNEM hit on the idea of obituaries after its local newspaper cut back to publishing just three days a week.

As Meredith has grown its obit business, it has added tabs linking other regional stations’ obit information so a person in Saginaw can check out the deaths in other nearby cities, like Detroit and South Bend, Ind. 

Jeff Trott, general manager of ONE Service, is selling the system to stations outside the Meredith family, with 22 on the air and another 35 in some stage of negotiation   

Though it’s hardly a big business now, Trott predicts that “within five years we’ll have the majority of obituaries appearing on television and online. The paradigm shift is happening very quickly.”

TVNewsCheck wrote about ONE Service in August, and the obituary momentum seems to be continuing. “It’s a fairly recession-proof business. People don’t stop dying,” Trott says.

And that’s true: 2.3 million people die every year. (The five states with the highest death rates: Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, Illinois and Ohio.) 

Weather Metrics worked on the system with Meredith for WNEM and Meredith’s WFSB Hartford, Conn. Since then, Meredith and WeatherMetrics have parted way, each marketing its own death notice service.

Though Weather Metrics CEO Peter Levy won’t say it flat out, it appears they are working with Tributes.com to add the no-fuss on-air component to Tribute’s obituaries. “It’s a very new business,” he said. “There’s room for everybody.”     

Weather Metrics recently signed up WORA and WKAQ in San Juan, P.R., which plan a much bigger on-air display of daily deaths than WNEM. And Levy thinks Spanish-language stations in the U.S could become good customers.

Still, selling obituaries to stations isn’t easy. Beyond the fact that marketing obituaries sounds macabre, some station execs apparently think they appeal to a demographic that just won’t go to a website to read a death notice.

Like they do for a newspaper death notice, funeral directors pay for their on-air and online obituaries. But they pay less, and on the website put together by Tributes, Meredith or WeatherMetrics, the funeral home gets a link to its page, which helps its exposure some more with photos of the place and maps to direct visitors there.

At the Cincinnati Enquirer one day last month, there were 27 paid death notices. I did some snooping. Usually, I was told, funeral directors place these notices and the average one costs $300 a day. Assuming the ad runs for two days, that means the paper makes $16,200 for that group of stiffs.

If the bereaved want, they can also put a photo of their dead relative in the paper. That costs about $500 more. Per day.

Now consider putting an obit on a station’s website. There’s no need to charge that big money because space is not an issue. And that photo of Uncle Bill can be in color, not black and white. It also can be seen instantly and forever by relatives far away. In a touchy-feely business, that matters. 

Yet, online and on-air death notices are a long way from becoming a concept everybody is comfortable with, though it’s hard to figure out why. 

“You talk about obits on TV and some people look at you and say, ‘What’s wrong with you?’” Weather Metric’s Levy admits. “And I think to myself, I’ve just heard stories about eight people who just got shot on your newscast. Then I think, maybe we’re just covering death in a more humane way than they are.”

 


Market Share by P.J. Bednarski, all about TV sales and TV sales people, appears every other week in TVNewsCheck. Bednarski is longtime TV reporter and a former top editor at TV Week and B&C. If you have comments on this column or ideas for future ones, contact him at [email protected]

 

Read earlier Market Share columns:

Free Lunch Promo Is A Recipe For Revenue

Small Market Exchange Best In Show: KVIA

Stations May Suffer In For-Profit Schools Fight

How To Boost Revenue In Just Five Seconds

TVB, NAB To Focus On Sales Outlook, Ideas


Comments (9)

Leave a Reply

Warren Harmon says:

November 9, 2010 at 10:58 am

Another fine example of our moral obligations cast aside and turned into a “Revenue Stream”. It makes me sick to see how our society needs to GET PAID to do the right thing. How did we raise such a generation, it is just plain crazy.

Matthew Craft & David K. Randall says:

November 9, 2010 at 11:58 am

This is a great idea but it doesn’t go far enough. For a premium fee, viewers should be able to post obituaries for people they intensely dislike but are, unfortunately, still breathing. Imagine the revenue streams merely from people wanting to deliver such aspirational memorials to the anchors of FOX NEWS and MSNBC!

    Kathryn Miller says:

    November 9, 2010 at 2:56 pm

    we could even extend that to the “likely to die” category, such as people on their 4the relapse back into meth addiction, young gang-bangers, etc. “Prospective death notices.” By the way, a “death notice” is a paid message; obituaries are editorial matter. The item uses the term ‘obituary’ but in every instance save perhaps “leave a message” means “death notice” and not obit.

E B says:

November 9, 2010 at 12:25 pm

How soon will it be until the broadcast dinosaurs post their own obituaries?

alicia farmer says:

November 9, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Two postings today say a lot about the state of local TV stations: Obituaries and Infommercials.

eric lin says:

November 9, 2010 at 2:42 pm

Not to the families who buy spots. What about them? Duh.

Emily Teaford says:

November 9, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Why not? And give it time before LegalZoom offers a “will package” that includes a “memorial video” produced by Spotrunner that will be uploaded to the website of your favorite TV station… and for an extra fee, Achor Joe Smith will personally read your tribute and announce your memorial schedule. Darn, why didn’t I think of this first? http://www.alanbestbuys.com

Curt Molander says:

November 9, 2010 at 4:23 pm

There is nothing wrong with obituaries on television. There are two reasons why they are printed in newspapers. A great many people find them interesting and they are profitable. Both reasons have application to local television, especially in a small markets. It sounds like they only reasons not to do them are either some sort of snobbery or being intellectually rigid “well, that’s now how we have always done things.” Have a little courage people, man up and remember chance favors the bold.

    Ellen Samrock says:

    November 10, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    I agree. This is a very good idea and I see no conflict in offering this service from a public service perspective while making money with it. Would it be more acceptable if the word “television” was crossed out and “newspaper” put in its place? It’s hypocritical to say that obituaries are acceptable in one media but not in another.


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