television: Location, Location, Location

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In the quest for TV ratings, there is a home-field advantage.

NBC's Providence is a hit nationally, but is even more popular with residents of Providence, Rhode Island, where the show is based.

For Frances Uscio, Providence is more than a television show. It's a friend. The 52-year-old administrative assistant from North Providence, Rhode Island, faithfully watches NBC's popular Friday night drama each week. "It has a special place in my heart because it has a lot of similarities to my own life," she says. "I get emotional when Syd's [deceased] mother tells her that she is the one person who has to keep the rest of the family together. I too am the oldest and feel that I have to keep things going for the sake of the family. Providence is a form of therapy that helps me deal with my parents' deaths."

Uscio isn't the only Providence resident for whom the show has hit a nerve. A whopping 26 percent of all television households in that market tune in, compared with 11 percent of the rest of the country, according to a Nielsen ratings analysis by Horizon Media. In other words, Providence residents are 137 percent more likely to watch the show than the national average. "There's extreme pride of ownership in this city," says Gina Smith, vice president of sales at NBC-owned affiliate WJAR, Channel 10, in Providence, where spots during the program are sold at a premium. "If you have a loyal audience and then add a program that makes the city look beautiful, it's a great recipe for success."

The connection between TV viewers and their "hometown" shows is a real one, and it extends far beyond Providence. In Cleveland, where the ABC sitcom The Drew Carey Show is set, area residents are 72 percent more likely to watch than the rest of America. And CBS's Judging Amy, set in Hartford, Connecticut, garners 27 percent more viewers in the home market as well. The trend even exists for shows in which the location is barely recognizable or less significant to the plot - NBC's Frasier, for example, reaps a 27 percent higher rating in Seattle and CBS's The Practice appeals to 23 percent more Bostonians than the national average.

Viewers are drawn to hometown shows because of local pride or a resonance with like-minded characters.

This appeal is not lost on program creators, networks, local affiliates, or advertisers. Looking beyond the ratings to how people relate to their sense of place can potentially help advertisers gain a firmer foothold in their consumers' front doors.

Ever notice that the majority of television shows are set in New York or Los Angeles? The reason: more eyeballs. Those cities are the two most populated TV markets, with 6.9 million and 5.2 million households, respectively. Together they make up 12 percent of the country's 100.8 million TV households. Assuming, as networks do, that people watch more shows set in their hometown than those far and away, this strategy is the logical way to deliver the most consumers to advertisers.

But there is a catch. Says David Poltrack, executive vice president of research and planning for CBS: "The upside of placing a show in New York or Los Angeles is that they are the largest population centers and they also tend to be of interest to the entire population as tourist and cultural centers. The downside," he adds, "is that it is very difficult to establish a relationship and create empathy with the audience with a show based in such a large city."

In fact, ratings for nationally popular shows like NBC's Friends or CBS's Everybody Loves Raymond, whose characters live in New York City, capture only 4 percent and 2 percent more of the New York market than the national average, respectively. However, shows like NBC's Law and Order, which make an effort to include New York neighborhoods - citing specific addresses and highlighting familiar exteriors like the Washington Square Park arch - do capture a larger New York audience: 27 percent larger. "Everyone likes to watch shows that highlight your particular city or the street where you live," says Neil Aronstam, president of Independent Media Services.

While rating points and market size still rule the media game, they aren't the only things that count. Says Aronstam: "The ratings don't include what is going on in people's heads. When we make purchases for our clients, we also try to look for a show's positive associative value." Because most shows portray a city in a neutral or positive light, many people take civic pride in being associated with it, and are therefore more apt to watch. Smart advertisers should be willing to pay premiums in home markets that deliver not just the greatest number of viewers, but the most attentive and appropriate viewers, says Aronstam.

Some already do. For instance, local spots on The Drew Carey Show are the biggest money-makers for ABC affiliate WEWS, Channel 5, in Cleveland, where the show is set and its head liner got his start. Advertisers that purchase one of the three local spots available during Drew Carey pay 20 percent to 35 percent more than the station's next most popular show, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? "We get the highest price because it's the highest-rated show here," says local sales manager Jim Rini. "And it's highest rated because it's here in Cleveland. The show is sold out all the time."

A similar drama unfolds in Hartford, where CBS's Judging Amy is staged. "People in Connecticut have really embraced the show," says Klarn DePalma, local sales manager for CBS affiliate WFSB, Channel 3. The program, about a successful lawyer and single mother who moves back to her hometown to become a judge, is based on the real-life story of star Amy Brenneman's mother. "With Amy Brenneman being from here, it definitely makes the show an easier sell. Advertisers understand that people from around here embrace her story," says DePalma. While he wouldn't say how high a premium the station charges for the show, he did say that advertisers are happy to pay for the added value they get from being associated with the program. "As we turn the corner on season number two," says DePalma, "advertisers will start seeing it as more of a `must buy,' instead of just a Hartford buy."

It makes intuitive sense that shows like Drew Carey or Judging Amy are popular in the stars' respective hometowns, but what about a purely fictitious show like Fox's Ally McBeal, with its seemingly random Boston setting? The show's creators do not highlight the city in any way, aside from the occasional panoramic skyline.

So why is it that 23 percent more Bostonians watch the show than the national average? More specifically, why are 18-to-49-year-old Bostonian women 77 percent more likely to watch the program than that demographic's national average? One possible answer: substantially more "Ally McBeals" - white, never married, urban, professional, highly educated, 25 to 44 years old, with incomes between $75,000 and $100,000 - live in Boston than almost any other city, according to our analysis of those combined variables using Easy Analytic Software, Inc. Boston comes in second only to Middlesex, New Jersey, a market with about a quarter of Boston's population.

But when a show doesn't have a hometown hero or a very specific character demo it hopes to match, business takes the reins. Networks lobby for show placement in an area where they own an affiliate station so they can drive local ad revenue back to the network, rather than to a privately owned affiliate. CBS's family drama Promised Land, which went off the air last year after a three-season stint, is one example. The show, about a family that travels the country in a camper, received high ratings in small counties across the country but not in the large urban TV markets, says CBS's Poltrack. So network execs and creators decided to shift the program's storyline and settle the family down in a racially diverse urban setting. They eventually chose Denver, solely because CBS owns the affiliate station there. In the TV biz, "nothing is ever random," says Poltrack.

For whatever reason shows land where they land, Larry Orell, general manager at ad shop The Lord Group, recommends that local advertisers pay attention to the "home effect." "An advertiser should always look to build a relationship with people in the home market," he says. The 21-year veteran of media buying says he makes a habit of recommending buys during local shows, especially local news and cable programs, to top clients like Bell Atlantic. Fortifying those "hometown" connections is key to solidifying trust in the products and services they are trying to sell, he says.

Local marketers would be smart to tie-in or tailor advertising to home based shows, says Orell. Logistically, however, it doesn't often happen because of the expense and time it takes to develop and produce specialized commercials and promotional events. Yet he anticipates this will change as broadband and enhanced interactive television alter how people watch TV. "The Internet already allows advertisers to create messages down to the individual level," says Orell. "Eventually, when TV makes it on to the Internet, advertisers will be able to manage the creation of very targeted ads more economically."

It may come sooner than we think. One Internet provider, Smart World Technologies, announced in April that it had already signed contracts with several dozen TV station affiliates of ABC, CBS, and NBC in major media markets to participate in the formation of a national digital network that would combine telephone, Internet, and television content. By year's end, the company says that 50 percent of the nation's homes will have access to this broadband network melding the three mediums into one platform.

With better tools, more advertisers have the potential to gain from the home-field advantage that connects ratings with relationships. "Everyone wants greater accountability with their advertising," says Orell. "The more specific you can be with your target audience, the better. And knowing that local people have an enhanced interest in shows that take place in their hometown - it's really a no-brainer."

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