Williams starts up rep firm to sell 'CSAs' for local stations

PBS Sponsorship Group will compete to arrange 30-second spots

Originally published in Current, July 21, 1997

By Steve Behrens

Fourteen big-city public TV stations have signed letters of intent with a new underwriting spot sales company being developed by Robert D. Williams, who founded the largest rep firm in cable TV, National Cable Communications.

Pacific Mountain Network, the regional public TV station group that ceased operations last month, invited Williams to take a look at the field when PMN was seeking options for investment of its remaining reserves. Williams apparently liked what he saw. A PMN committee has yet to decide whether to invest in the project, but Williams is already setting up the rep firm.

Williams Communications Inc. has registered the name "National Public Television" as a station representative, has contacted 35 major corporate clients and ad agencies, has set up a Boston office and is seeking space in New York City, according to Williams.

The ad man got his start as co-founder of Boston's Real Paper alternative weekly in the 1970s, prospered in cable advertising during the '80s, built National Cable Communications into the largest national rep firm in cable TV, with $150 million annual sales, and sold the firm to the Katz ad rep empire.

He now sees potential "significant" growth in public TV underwriting, because of the system's "priceless franchise and very limited availability." Williams and others use the phrase "corporate support announcements" or "CSAs" for the commodity they're selling.

Competitors: Thompson and PBS

He won't have the CSA market to himself. Keith Thompson's Public Broadcast Marketing has been working the spot sales market since the FCC loosened underwriting guidelines in 1985. And PBS Sponsorship Group has moved more quickly into multimarket CSAs than previously planned, says Peter Greene, the group's new executive director.

Public Broadcast Marketing, based in New York, has a number of station accounts, according to Joe SanGeorge, v.p. of sales, but does most of its business placing spots on stations for its list of corporate clients rather than seeking out underwriters for stations.

Though the PBS Sponsorship Group was initially set up by PBS and four major producing stations to bring in production money by selling program underwriting, it now plans to begin in September offering multimarket or national spots on local stations, according to Greene.

The group will sell 30-second local spots, even though two of its partners, PBS and WETA, have urged stations to standardize on 15-second credits.

This fits with the group's account-based plan to serve sponsors' varied needs. "A corporate sponsor might say, 'We want to sponsor nationally and want to heavy-up the effort on the West Coast, so we're going to buy some CSAs on a multimarket basis out there," Greene says.

Participating stations will give the PBS group one 30-second spot in every primetime break, and the group will be responsible for selling it, he says.

The group has arranged with Independent Television Network Inc. to provide the "back room" infrastructure for handling the spot orders and verifying that the spots are aired, according to Greene. ITN places an electronic "black box" at participating stations, which detects the broadcast of encoded CSAs.

Spots versus national underwriting

Williams contends the CSA business will be quite different from the program underwriting that the PBS group was set up to sell.

CSAs won't carry with them the advantages of a close association with a program, he says, and a flight of spots reaching the whole country would cost much more than a national underwriting deal with a producer. Though CSAs and program underwriting will compete for some clients, it won't be a large overlap, he predicts.

Where CSAs have an advantage is with regional firms that only seek exposure in the Midwest or New England, for example.

Williams says the new company will seek exclusive contracts with stations, and in exchange will undertake (but not guarantee) to sell a specified amount of underwriting over time.

Because the most sought-after slots adjacent to major public TV programs will be scarce, the firm will probably sell packages of CSAs that include some of those slots and some that are less desirable.

Unlike the PBS Sponsorship Group, Williams won't ask stations to commit a certain inventory of CSA slots ahead of time, he says. Avails will be sold first come, first served, between his firm and local salespeople. His firm will clear inventory by telephone, he expects. That's how his cable rep firm arranged sales--via telephone and e-mail.

He advises stations to set up traffic and billing software so they'll know where their avails are tonight. "You cannot maximize the value of inventory unless you have a yield management system," he says.

Williams says he does not plan to base prices on audience size. Though both buyer and seller are aware of ratings, he says, he will emphasize public TV's uniqueness and relative lack of on-air clutter.

Some stations succeed with that approach, charging three or four times the usual cost-per-thousand rate based on number of eyeballs, he observes after talking with two dozen station managers. Other public TV stations set underwriting rates that compete directly with commercial TV, he says.


To Current's home page

Earlier news: PBS Sponsorship Group, founded in 1997, aims to bring national coordination to the sale of underwriting for program producers.


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