Hyper Local Broadcast Television – “Radio With Pictures”

30 October 2009 Blog post by: Steve Passwaiter


WZMY-TV or “MyTV New England,” is a local broadcast television station that covers the Boston, MA marketplace from its perch in Derry, NH. It has been evolving its own hyper local format since ShootingStar Broadcasting bought it in 2004. CEO/President Diane Sutter says the goal has been, “to combine the reach of TV with the personalization of radio and the interactivity of the Internet.” WZMY provides a mix of syndicated, My Network TV and station produced programs typically featuring vignettes sponsored by local merchants. In short, she refers to this strategy as “radio with pictures.”

We spoke with Diane Sutter last week to learn about her accomplishments with MyTV New England over the past five years, and get a sense of where she’s seeing future opportunities.

Even though WZMY operates in the large, competitive Boston, Massachusetts television market, its goal is to be local and that means being available (the first person listed on WZMY’s “contacts” page is Diane Sutter) and connected to the community. When the “community” is 10,000 square miles, it’s a challenge to get hyperlocal. WZMY does it by putting local people and businesses on the air in MyTV infomercial programming intermixed with main stream programs like”The Unit,” “Office” and “Law and Order.”

BIA/Kelsey: Diane, you’re trying to develop a “hyper local” strategy with a broadcast television station. How does that work? How can you take a traditional mass medium like television and make it hyperlocal?

Diane Sutter: Localism is hard to achieve in a 10,000 square mile market area let alone hyperlocalism! Local is not just about news and weather, though they’re important topics. At My TV New England, we get hyperlocal by finding a niche not served by other stations and serving it. We identify and focus on common themes and develop relevant programming based on the “MyTV” format of putting local people on the air in our on air ID’s and station promotional spots. We’ve used viewers on our ID’s since day one. We use a mix of people to do these and sprinkle those throughout our broadcast day.

For example, there are lots of moving parts in a wedding. Brides will drive a fairly long distance to get all their planning and shopping done. We produce a local show several times which focuses on the local wedding business. By targeting local merchants with services ranging from attire to venues to catering we can put together episodes that can get pretty hyper local. We have local merchants sponsor each segment and often appear themselves. We produce vignettes running 2, 3 or 5 minutes for example, and sell these segments. We typically sell out a half hour episode with these vignettes. We also have “regular” 15 or 30 second commercials running between the vignettes which makes for sort of a situation where we say, “we now interrupt this local infomercial to bring you a commercial” . . . but it works!

For us, hyper local is putting local merchants on the air to share their solutions to the everyday problems our viewers have. We do this with the MyTV format from weddings (“My Elegant Wedding”) to where to eat (“My Favorite Restaurant”) to taking care of your home (“My Home and Garden”). We even ran a show, “MyINK” featuring some of New England’s leading tattoo parlors. That’s local and personal.

BIA/Kelsey: What’s the competitive environment like for an independent television station trying to go hyperlocal in the Boston market?

Diane Sutter: Well, you could say we’re doing a great job of running the bases but haven’t quite crossed home plate yet. We definitely see ourselves as moving the needle. The challenge is to find an important niche that we can both service and defend. For example, we’re in a market where 1.7 million of 2.4 million homes are on Comcast and unlike broadcast television they can sell regionally by system. They have five times our sales staff. When Comcast’s advertisers get large enough to buy three or more regions, they get promoted to Comcast Spotlight service which is very compelling. We’ve also got 24 hour news and sports channels, some of the country’s leading broadcasters in the market with network programming, news, weather and sports. It’s a tough place for an independent station. As advertisers start moving more of their spending into digital media, that also becomes a growing challenge for us. I’ve seen a big paradigm shift in the market over the past five or six years. A stand alone station like ours used to have it a lot easier!

BIA/Kelsey: What’s your formula for standing out in the market and being successful?

Diane Sutter: I tell you what; it starts with operating on a scale to be profitable. We need to keep our table balanced to succeed. The four legs on our table are (1) the viewers; (2) our advertisers and community leaders; (3) station ownership; and (4) the staff. It’s my job to lead the effort to use our resource to serve these four critical groups. There may be a lot of things we could do, but given limited resources I need to ask how any major initiative advances the ball for these groups and at what cost for any given opportunity. Since we’re a television station we can do production, creative services, news, weather and promotion. But we need to balance our capabilities and resources with our opportunities.

For example, WZMY used to have a news program because we thought that was an important thing to do for the community and to be a broadcast leader. But we stopped doing that show mainly because in a market like this, we simply couldn’t figure out how to be unique in a way that mattered. What we did do was to execute a strategy to help the community in a different way. We have one of the most recognized and talented weather personalities in the Boston market and he’s out in the community at least three to four days a week at various events. That’s a place where we can make a contribution to the market and stand out. In a sense, our strategy here for leveraging station personalities and tying programming into the community is like what some of the Spanish-language television stations do so well.

We also used to do “MyTV Prime” which was a live, interactive talk show. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see on radio but we’re doing it with television. It was a very well balanced program with a diversity of viewpoints on important subjects from 3-4 different people. Now, that’s unique and something that was defensible from likely competition. Were it not for the creation of MyNetwork TV, it’s likely we’d still be doing this in prime. We may try to recreate this somewhere else on our programming schedule in the future. We’ve also got “MyTV Club” which again is formatted in a personalized way like you’d see in radio. I guess, generally our formula for success is sort of, “radio with pictures.”

Radio’s a great personal medium and we see extensions into independent television that make great sense. Our goal is to have a conversation with our viewers. I take this seriously. If you go to the MyTV New England web page and click on “contacts” you’ll see me listed first. I get and answer emails from viewers every day. We make every effort to answer all viewer emails within 24 hours.

BIA/Kelsey: How about your sales strategies. Where do you hire from and how do you train? What kind of accountability are advertisers demanding?

Diane Sutter: We’ve got to think differently. It’s not just thinking out of the box, the box is gone! We need to have new approaches in sales. Hiring someone who’s worked for an affiliate doesn’t really work for us. The selling of this station is just too different for them.

We’ve got some traditional sales folks who are well schooled in selling television time. But for all their strengths in selling airtime packages, some of our other inventory can be a bit daunting. It doesn’t make sense to set people up to fail. Put them where they’re strong and hire around them. That’s our approach. They do have some familiarity with the interactive side but they can ask for the assistance of our other sales resources that are more comfortable in the selling of our digital assets. Some of these items are a bit technical and we don’t expect them to know everything about them. We look at our sales talent pool and bring new blood on board in way that complements and extends what we have, particularly on the digital platforms – mobile and web. We are getting ready to announce our new multicast partner shortly and that might cause us to shift how we sell a bit. We’re also looking into the possibility of hiring a digital only sales team but we’re not there yet.

Essentially, we’ve got two kinds of sellers – transactional and developmental. The transactional sellers are the traditional sales people who can harvest existing relationships and opportunities. They’re great at that. The developmental sellers are the hunters who can prospect, qualify and bring home new accounts and business. They need to carry more of the mindset of an ad agency resource who can piece together various elements into a coordinated campaign for the advertiser.

Now on accountability and performance metrics, we don’t subscribe to Nielsen and haven’t for years. I inherited that contract when we bought the station. As everyone knows Nielsen is a large expense in a market like Boston. However, I think we’ve only lost one account due to our stance. Our Nielsen numbers are relatively small so we can’t play the numbers game. We sell results; we have to. Our plan is working but it’s a very different philosophy from traditional network affiliates. This is a little different for television sales folks. But with more and more media platforms and increasing advertising inventory available, it gets down to results and accountability pretty quickly. We need to be on different platforms.

One way we’re doing this is with our permission marketing and lead management. We don’t just sell air time, we’ve got the ability to offer mobile SMS text ads, we’ve done promos with radio and newspapers, and we’re creating web sites independent of the MyTV brand. We focus on the service not the brand we provide our advertisers.

As an example, we’re working to get car dealers back in the advertising market. We’re creating vertical web sites without the station or dealers brands as integral to the sites with the idea of promoting a single web site for an aggregate audience. Once we drive them to the site, we will manage leads by zip code. Car dealers will buy their zip codes and that’s how we’ll route customer queries. It’s a fair and transparent process that advertisers will understand and value. We’ll get paid on a cost per lead as the power of our television station really drives web traffic.

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