As stations continue to dig for local revenue, some are unearthing untapped sources of cash six feet under. About five months after launching an on-air/online obituary service at its WNEM Saginaw, Meredith signed its first Obit Michigan affiliate, Gray Television's WILX Lansing, on Dec. 30.
WILX VP/General Manager Mike King says his crew will meet this week to plot its obit-business strategy, with an eye on a March 1 launch. With newspapers in decline—and papers in Michigan scaling back their print schedules more than most—King says there's considerable opportunity for stations to grab some of the business, such as death notices, that has long been the province of newspapers.
“[Obituaries are] one of those areas where we've not had an opportunity to participate,” King says. “Now we feel there's opportunity to get into this space, and Meredith has developed the technology to make it easy to do so.”
Meredith has big plans for its obituary initiative; Local Media Group President Paul Karpowicz sees a seven-figure revenue haul in 2010. Working with the funeral directors in the Saginaw market, WNEM has sold more than 1,200 death notifications, at $100 and up.
Meredith plans to launch similar programs at owned stations WFSB Hartford and WSMV Nashville in the next two months. It's also in discussions with other groups, including a major owner in Detroit, about syndicating the service, which involves a straight revenue share and no upfront fee.
Karpowicz says the obit strategy is precisely what stations have to do to survive these days. “You have to be creative, you have to be responsive to the marketplace, and you have look for opportunities wherever you can find them,” he says. “Obituaries are an area where newspapers made money for years and years, but there's no reason stations can't be involved in that.”
The project was begat by the ailing newspaper industry. When daily papers in Saginaw and Flint went to three-day-a-week schedules last June, local funeral director Rodney Wakeman explained to WNEM staffers how he and his colleagues relied on daily death notices to let people know when wakes and funerals were to be held.
“Families were in a conundrum when the papers cut back,” says Wakeman, co-owner of Wakeman Funeral Home and district director of the Michigan Funeral Directors Association. “Were we to hold services around the newspaper's schedule, or based on families' needs?”
Meredith Interactive Media Manager Sam Licavoli, who's based out of WNEM's facility, overheard staffers discussing the funeral directors' plight. He met with Wakeman the next day, got his input on how the reduced print schedules were causing backlogs at funeral parlors, and made a presentation to the area's funeral directors a week and a half later about putting clients' death notices on WNEM's air. “There was great, great interest from them,” Licavoli says.
Obit Michigan was born. Friends and family of the deceased pay to have their loved one's basic information (name, hometown and mourning service listings) appear on-screen during two-minute Mid-Michigan Death Notices segments at the end of WNEM's morning, noon and early evening newscasts, as well as on the interactive ObitMichigan.com.
For $100, users get the on-air notification, along with bio and a photo online; slide shows and video online can be added for a higher price. ObitMichigan.com, which does not feature ads, logs around 80,000 page views per month.
While newspapers are bridging their print gaps with online obituaries, Licavoli says local TV is preferable for older people who may be uncomfortable using the Web. For those better versed in new media, ObitMichigan.com content can be shared via Twitter and Facebook, and sent as text messages. (Check out the basics of Obit Michigan on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=5qjtZIppbk0.)
Viewers occasionally complain about the morbidity of death notices on TV, according to Licavoli, but feedback has otherwise been favorable.
Similar obit models will eventually be in place in all Meredith markets. The broadcaster continues to seek station partners outside the group, and to pitch the program to funeral directors nationwide. Sara Wright, Meredith's integrated sales manager, was in Florida last week, presenting the concept for 30 state directors from the Council of Funeral Association Executives. A one-hour presentation stretched to two, as directors peppered her with questions. “It was a great discussion,” Wright says.
Karpowicz says stations can continue to gain from newspapers' losses. “Look at the traditional sections of the newspaper,” he says. “Any of those are places where stations can say, 'We can do that.'”