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.
Obits: A New Revenue Stream To Die For
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
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]
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