60 Minutes Story Drives Away Ads

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For Matt Uhl, general manager of the CBS affiliate in Harrisburg, Pa., CBS’ 60 Minutes is usually a bright spot in his week and a bragging point for his salespeople..

But a report by the CBS news magazine on the financing practices of car dealerships two weeks ago may end up costing the station more than $100,000 in advertising. No small loss in Harrisburg, the No. 47 Nielsen TV market.

The 60 Minutes report, titled "The Best Possible Deal?," outraged the Philadelphia Dodge Dealers Group so much that it decided within days of the April 4 airing to yank all its ads off WHP for the second quarter.

The dealer group also informed the Clear Channel-owned station that it might not buy any more ads for the rest of the year and intends to similarly punish CBS-owned KYW-TV Philadelphia, although no action has been taken yet. A CBS stations spokesman declined to comment.

Retaliation against a CBS-owned station may be understandable, says WHP National Sales Manager Stu Brenner, but targeting a non-owned affiliate in a small market with absolutely no influence over 60 Minutes? "It’s completely misdirected," he says.

CBS News says it "values its strong relationship with the CBS-owned stations and affiliates and respects their relationship with their advertisers. However, this was a valid and newsworthy story. We believe we served our viewers well by reporting it, and we are grateful that the CBS stations support our mission of accurate and independent journalism."

That support is often tested by auto dealers, whose ads comprise the single biggest ad category for TV stations. The Television Bureau of Advertising estimates that car ads account for 30% of a TV station’s ad revenue on average. In 2003, carmakers and dealers spent $4.7 billion on local ads, up 2% from 2002, according to ad tracker Competitive Media Reporting.

Even more galling to WHP is that the Dodge dealers that yanked the ads weren’t even mentioned in the 60 Minutes piece, which covered dealers’ practice of adding interest points to car loans, often undisclosed. Such loans are then presented as "the best deal possible" when it often is not.

Repeated calls to the head of the Philadelphia Dodge Dealers Group, Joe McErlean, were not returned. But, says Harold Kobakof, chief retail officer, BBDO Detroit, the ad agency for Dodge Dealers around the country, "It happens all the time."

Why? Because the dealers believe that news departments tar their entire industry with the same tainted brush. "There are good dealers and bad dealers," Kobakof says. While targeting local affiliates may seem unfair, he says, from the dealer’s perspective, “they may have lost three deals the morning after that story runs. It’s a very powerful medium, so that’s very frustrating."

As a matter of policy, CBS says it warns its affiliates in advance of any stories that could ruffle the feathers of local advertisers. In the Harrisburg case, stations let their auto clients know it was coming. Some of the car dealers asked that their spots be shifted to other programs, and, in some instances, stations moved the car ads just as a precaution.