'Squeeze' play stokes concern

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A scandal concerning a local TV station found to have been digitally shortening program content to add commercials is rubbing local advertisers the wrong way-and the American Association of Advertising Agencies is voicing its concern.

The furor surrounds CBS-owned station KDKA-TV in Pittsburgh, which used a device called the Time Machine to shorten a live Pittsburgh Steelers game Oct. 14 to add one 30-second TV commercial. This action is against strict National Football League guidelines-TV stations cannot edit or cut any of live game broadcasts. The story was first reported in a Pittsburgh newspaper and later in Electronic Media, a sibling publication of Advertising Age.

Now, local advertisers and agencies, wary that other local stations are using the practice, are taking a stand. Cathy Crawford, exec VP-director of local broadcast for Interpublic Group of Cos.' Initiative Media North America, Los Angeles, and chairman of the local broadcast committee for the 4A's, sent a letter to Fred Reynolds, president of Viacom Television Stations. In the letter, she expressed concern that adding commercials increases commercial clutter and decreases value.

"We expect that if we order a 10, 15, 30 or a 60 [second] spot, that we should be getting the full amount of what our clients are paying for," said Ms. Crawford. "We asked for assurance that this [time-compression practice] would be not be used at KDKA or at any other CBS-Viacom owned stations." She added: "If [TV stations] continue to clutter the environment, it's going to make the use of television have less of an impact. This is a major issue. The more cluttered the environment, the less effective a commercial could ... be."

A CBS spokesman said Mr. Reynolds has written back to Ms. Crawford. The letter said, in part, "You can rest assured that the unauthorized practice of program compression is not occurring on any CBS owned-and-operated station. The incident at KDKA was unfortunate and unacceptable. An action was taken immediately to prevent a reoccurance."

TV commercial clutter has been a longtime problem for advertisers. Increasingly in the last several years, advertisers have complained about the growing number of non-program messages-both program promotion and paid TV commercials-which now broach, on average, 20 minutes per hour during prime time. Networks have been pushed to add more commercial inventory, especially in boom times, to help increase advertising revenues. In the downturn, networks are feeling pressure to wring as much revenue as they can from moneymaking programs.

The Time Machine's original intent, according to executives, was to create programming holes for the state lottery broadcasts. That's what KDKA did in creating a 20-second hole to run the Pennsylvania State Lottery just before "The CBS Evening News." As a result, the CBS news show was time shifted ahead 20 seconds but no content was cut. KDKA did say some of its promotional time was cut back at the end of the CBS news show as a result.

Some ad executives believe stations like KDKA that add commercials to broadcasts should perhaps give advertisers some compensation for the resulting clutter.

"They have some egg on their face," said Karen Agresti, VP-director of local broadcast for Interpublic's Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Boston. "It wouldn't hurt them to go out to their major advertisers, and say, `I'll give you some free spots.' It's not like [advertisers] have lost anything. It's not like we got burnt here. It's all about a little bit more clutter."

Mike Gerst, KDKA director of marketing, said while advertisers have contacted the station expressing concern, he does not know of any that have received compensatory `make good' commercial inventory.

Electronic Media noted that other stations are using the machine. A report said another CBS-owned station, WBZ-TV, Boston, carved out 60-seconds of ad time in the CBS hit show, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" and a 30-second spot in "That's Life." The report also noted another station group, Granite Broadcasting, has also been using the machine. Granite has mostly non-CBS affiliates.

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