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The New Tricks of Traffic Flow

Systems allow sales managers to keep better tabs on inventory 1/16/2005 07:00:00 PM Eastern

While television executives need great ideas and hard-working staffers
to bring in more bucks, few bosses think buying the right traffic system can
have much effect. But while keeping track of commercials with equipment that
allows massive “run” logs, Excel spreadsheets and sales reports seems free
of radical technological flourishes, it is a backroom business that is changing
fast and adding to the bottom line.

The newer traffic systems on the market, from the likes of VCI, Wide
Orbit and OSI, deliver features ranging from the ability to format reports in a
variety of ways to the power to keep intense tabs on spot avails and
inventory.

Larry Keene, CEO of the Traffic Directors Guild of America, offers one
piece of advice for customers looking at traffic systems: Stay focused. The
leader of the informational organization, which has about 5,000 members, says,
“Any good traffic-system salesperson will concentrate on the bells and
whistles. The key for any operation is to know what items are must-haves and
what items are would-like-to-haves.”

At its core, a traffic system is a massive database located on PC
servers that keeps track of sales inventory. Ideally, the system will reflect
changes in real time, so as a sales person sells a spot, others on staff will
know what spots are still available or what needs to be moved. It is a bit like
knowing which seats have been booked on a plane.

The system's massive database, accessed through in-house PCs and
increasingly through remote access by salespeople on the road, has a constant
push and pull of data. The three employee groups most involved with the traffic
system are the sales team, traffic directors and corporate execs. Each of them
have slightly different needs from a traffic system, so making a change
requires plenty of meetings. “It's great if the system can schedule
everything, but if it doesn't give avails and inventory or make reports for
corporate, it will be worthless,” says Keene.

What To Look For

So what are the “must-haves”? Because a traffic system is all about
keeping the sales team, corporate execs and traffic operators on top of
inventory, it needs to print and format reports in a style that each user is
comfortable with.

If there is a certain type of report users loved in the old system that
the new one isn't able to produce, the result may be a grumbling sales staff.
“Pacing reports that let a sales team see where they are today compared to a
year, month or week ago are increasingly popular,” says Keene.

Another must-have is the ability to manage “bookend spots.”
Advertisers are increasingly buying both the first and last spot in a
commercial pod—these are the times viewers are most likely to still be in the
room before bolting for the kitchen or the bathroom, or grabbing the remote to
switch the channel.

Unfortunately, such buys place a larger burden on the traffic operator,
particularly if a spot needs to move. Moving one bookend while leaving the
other can lead to lost revenues and make-goods. Some of the older systems
aren't easily able to move both bookends, although there are options that can
address that shortcoming.

Also important is maximum flexibility with run logs. Does the system
automatically shift spots in case a sporting event runs over? Can it easily
handle a three-hour breaking-news event? And can the traffic system schedule
selling patterns or infomercials that might hopscotch all over the schedule?

And remember the impact of multicasting on future log needs. With more
stations looking at multicasting, the ability to create multiple run logs will
be a vital part of any forward-moving traffic system.

Lastly, says Keene, the importance of training cannot be overlooked. How
good is the initial training? Do the trainers need to return four or six times
a year? What about support? Does the vendor take care of problems instantly or
call back the next day?

“With TV, sometimes you can't wait until tomorrow,” says Keene.
“Satisfaction with the level of support is very important.” He recommends
getting hold of the maximum amount of current system customers to gauge their
satisfaction: “And don't just call the three stations you know really love
the system.”

As Things Get Complicated

The growing dependence on IT-based systems across all parts of a
facility means that engineering will also be part of the process. Brian Coombs,
project development engineer for Clear Channel, says the challenge facing
broadcasters wanting to upgrade their traffic and automation systems is that
they need to take a look at their entire facility. “Stations shouldn't
separate traffic, program management, satellite feed automation or video
servers,” says Coombs. “They're all part of one large workflow.”

Clear Channel TV stations currently use VCI's traffic system. But
Coombs is currently helping a number of the stations make the move to new
automation systems from Clear Channel subsidiary Prophet Systems Innovations;
the newer systems are already in use at more than 3,000 radio stations. Clear
Channels' TV stations in Fresno, Calif.; Fairbanks, Alaska; Little Rock,
Ark.; and Eugene, Ore., are all in the process of making the switch. Coombs
can't comment on what Prophet Systems' eventual impact will be on VCI.

Even with the Prophet automation systems handling much of the workload,
there is still plenty of manual inputting to do. For example, when a television
program arrives at a station, usually via satellite, one employee enters data
for electronic programming guides, newspaper listings and Internet sites. A
second staffer enters information regarding contracts, commercial spots and
promos. A third then types all data into the automation system; a fourth
employee may also be involved with data entry. All of these employees add not
only to costs but to the chance of error.

The goal for any new automation or traffic rebuild is to automate those
processes as much as possible. This is especially important as broadcasters are
on the cusp of what could best be termed the age of multicasting. “My goal is
to free up [employees] so they can be used in handling the playout of digital
multicasts,” says Coombs. “We want to add those additional channels without
adding staff.”

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