The less-is-more theory

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New York's WCBS-TV early morning news show has cut its ad inventory in half to sell marketers on the idea that fewer ads means more attention for those that run. But rivals and media buyers claim it's easy for WCBS to do since advertising and ratings are scarce for the last-place news broadcast.

Nevertheless, at least one media buyer believes the strategy is sound. "Having less advertisers and less competition should make our ads stand out," said Randy Altman, senior buyer at Interpublic Group of Cos.' LCI, a unit of Universal McCann. Ms. Altman buys WCBS-TV inventory for General Motors Corp.

still behind rivals

Lew Leone, WCBS-TV VP-general manager, said the experiment on the 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. "News this Morning" show has been so successful that an unidentified sibling station, part of the Viacom Television Stations Group, will soon be running the promotion as well.

"Our audience numbers have gone up," said Mr. Leone, who started the promotion on Jan. 5. "Comparing January last year to this year, our numbers are up 10%."

According to Nielsen Media Research numbers supplied by WCBS-TV, the household rating for the morning show in January 2003 averaged 0.95 across both hours. This year it is up to 1.06, still well behind rivals. WABC TV's "Eyewitness News" averages a 3.35 rating over two hours; WNBC TV's early morning news averages 2.35; WB 11's early news captures a 1.35; and Fox 5's "Good Day New York" logs a 1.45 rating.

"It has yet to be seen if they will attract a larger audience. There hasn't been any significant change in the ratings yet, but as a viewer, I find it to be much more watchable," Ms. Altman said.

A TV executive at a rival station, who requested anonymity, said WCBS has always had a problem attracting viewers in this early hour. "It's their Achilles heel," said the executive. "[WCBS] is the most ratings challenged and often runs behind even the leading Spanish-language broadcast Univision. As a result, it's not going to make that much of a difference for them to cut inventory. Will it attract viewers? I don't see how. The stations that do get audiences have full commercial loads. And the viewers don't seem to be deserting them for [WCBS] ."

gradual increases

A similar experiment occurred once before in 1998, when local station WNYW-TV promoted fewer commercials to draw in viewers to its launch of a 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. "Good Day New York" broadcast. At that time, Fox Television's WNYW morning show was competing against the early national breakfast broadcasts at the majors such as "Good Morning America" and "Today." WNYW gradually increased the commercial load over a two-year period as the show caught on with audiences.

Mr. Leone said that WCBS has cut the ads not by trimming down clusters of ads in each ad break, but by eliminating some pods altogether. Previously the two-hour broadcast had six pods an hour, each two to two-and-a-half minutes. The new format carries three breaks an hour. Also, Mr. Leone said no regular advertisers were displaced by the inventory trim. In order to make up for less inventory, the station is charging more per :30 spot. "The pricing is up," Mr. Leone said. "Some of it is because the ratings are better and some if it is because there is less inventory. The price of entry in our morning show has never been high, but it would be safe to say that the pricing is up 20%."

Mr. Leone said that the spot cutting move was not just suggested by viewers. "Even the advertisers told us there were too many commercials."

"When you cut down on ads in a program, that eliminates clutter, which makes the remaining advertisers very happy," said Gary Belis, a spokesman for the Television Advertising Bureau, which represents local broadcasters.

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