Rohrs: TV Is Still the Medium That Builds Brands Best

TVB conference will confront changing contours of the media business

What if there was no mass in the mass media? That may never happen, but Chris Rohrs, president of the Television Bureau of Advertising, wonders if media executives ponder the downside of niche marketing.

“There’s this sense that we should move away from mass marketing to one-on-one, that there should be a customization of the connection and not so much the mass marketing,” he says. “We think that’s premature and damaging. You cannot build brands with all this niche marketing. That can be a part of the mix on the edges, but you need a mass connection to build and sustain brands. You simply do.”

Rohrs points out that TV watching still constitutes 54% of the media that audiences “consume” and that it is still, by far, the best way to reach mass markets and build brands.

He’ll be bringing that message to advertisers this week at the TVB’s annual convention at New York City’s Jacob Javits Convention Center. Teamed with the New York International Auto Show for the fourth year in a row, the convention has almost tripled in size (to more than 1,000 attendees from 300) since it left Las Vegas after 2001. There, for years, it was held in tandem with the NAB Show.

Auto advertisers are local stations’ biggest source of revenue in most years, so it is logical to have station execs here when automakers are in town, too. “Holding it here has really revitalized the conference,” Rohrs says. “It was a good game plan for us. Not only is it tied in to our No. 1 category—automotive—you also get the visual appeal and excitement of being in the midst of an auto show.”

New growth opportunites

Last year, local broadcast revenues grew by 12%, according to a TVB analysis of estimates supplied by TNS Media Intelligence/CMR in the top 100 markets. Revenues were up in nine of the top-10 advertising categories for the year, led by political spending, real estate, furniture, automotive and car dealerships. In the fourth quarter of 2004, local television revenues jumped by 18%, driven mostly by political advertising as the presidential election came to a close.

Rohrs concedes that while most of local broadcasting is no longer a growth business, emerging technologies present broadcasters with new growth opportunities.

“If you are in markets that don’t get political money and you are not getting Olympic money, then it’s a slower growth environment,” Rohrs says. Other than those two biennial categories, “this industry is largely driven by automotive dollars.”

And that is not enough, so TVB is busily studying trends to figure out how to change the role of local and spot advertising as the industry experiences rapid change.

“At this conference, we’re going to focus on at least four potential game-changers: high definition, video-on-demand, digital video recorders and handheld wireless devices,” Rohrs says.

At the moment, Rohrs seems most bullish on high-definition TV.

“HD clearly is a huge consumer home-run, particularly on broadcast television,” he says. “It’s the convergence of the best programming with the best picture, and that’s a great place to be. We’re excited about that, we see a huge opportunity for it. People who are not excited about high-definition in the home just don’t have it yet.”

While high-def is one technological area where broadcasters clearly have some advantage, they are concerned about other areas. Both VOD and DVRs allow consumers to skip advertising, while delivering television to wireless devices can take the viewer out of the local market altogether.

“These are tricky issues, and the good news is that the distribution is going to roll out incrementally,” Rohrs says. “We’ll have time to adjust and adapt, and it’s a mixed outlook so far. But there are ways to make smart, adaptive changes to all of these things. For example, we can have different-length commercials, and better commercials. We can become programmers and distributors of content to handheld wireless devices.”

Focus on constants

Another potential hurdle for broadcasters is the FCC’s pending decision on must-carry for digital multicasting. While the most recent FCC was not in favor of digital must-carry, with a new chairman and some new commissioners coming in, the thinking still could change in Washington.

“Even if that ruling stays just as it is, one of the outcomes will be that broadcasters will get much more creative about high-def,” he suggests. “If we don’t get that regulatory digital must-carry opportunity, then we’ll have to maximize the opportunity of high-definition. And in a sense, it would liberate multicasting development as well, because broadcasters would be motivated to try some inventive things.”

Even though change is the rule of the day, Rohrs also plans to focus on the constants.

“We’re going to be talking about change, but we’ll also focus on the things that are enduring,” Rohrs says. “Television has a special connection to viewers. There’s a lot of value in that for the advertiser.”

Rohrs and TVB have intentionally kept the conference to one day, giving attendees an opportunity to do other business while they are in New York City, the world capital of advertising and marketing.

Down to business

But during the conference, there will be plenty to keep them occupied. Peter Jennings, anchor of ABC’s World News Tonight, last of the veteran Big Three anchors now that NBC’s Tom Brokaw and CBS’ Dan Rather have retired, will give the keynote luncheon address.

Otherwise, it’s down to business. Besides Jennings’ talk, there will be a panel on local-television research, featuring executives from TVB and Nielsen; a discussion with top editors on advertising trends; a look at Project Roadblock, TVB’s public-service campaign with The Ad Council (see page 60); and four breakout panels on important issues in local TV, including doing business electronically and new opportunities in a challenging media environment. A complete schedule of the conference appears on page 54.

B&C’s four Broadcasters of the Year will also be featured in one afternoon session, moderated by B&C Editor in Chief J. Max Robins. Post-Newsweek’s Alan Frank, the latest to receive the honor, will join Viacom’s Dennis Swanson, Tribune’s Dennis FitzSimons and Hearst-Argyle’s David Barrett to discuss issues of the day.

The day ends with a cocktail party. At least that’s one media environment still firmly in place.