As the ever-crowded kids marketplace becomes even more muddled, syndicators such as Buena Vista Television face increasing pressure to hold on to their market clearances.
With new networks such as UPN and WB signing up affiliates for their own children’s programming, Buena Vista has been forced to develop aggressive new means to promote its Disney afternoon lineup.
Beginning in 1997, it starts a unique partnership with the Kellogg’s in an attempt to stem that market erosion.
It’s been an uphill battle for Disney ever since it re-entered the kids syndication business in 1987. Going into the 1996-97 season, it offers five programs on a barter basis and has clearance in 90 percent of the country.
One of the problems that Buena Vista has overcome is the perception among advertisers that ratings achieved on a weekday afternoons weren’t as important as those on Saturday mornings.
‘One of the big changes is the acceptance of us on parity with the typical broadcast networks. That parity has taken a long time to achieve,’ says Michael Shaw, executive vice president, Buena Vista Television Ad Sales. ‘We’ve really closed that gap in regards to charging the same cost per thousand as the networks.’
That’s the good news. The bad news is that while the overall picture is looking better, one vital part audience ratings remains cloudy at best. Shaw believes that Nielsen is an unreliable source of children’s ratings. ‘We, and most suppliers, are very frustrated by Nielsen and their inability to correctly measure kid viewing. I would go so far as to say that it’s the most frustrating thing I’ve dealt with in 20 years of being in this business.’
The problem stems from the use of people meters, which Shaw says are cumbersome, user-unfriendly, oversample cable homes and fail to take into account such factors as how many children are in a room. Worst of all, Nielsen TV audience numbers don’t jibe with other Nielsen samplings.
Shaw points to Nielsen people meter reports that showed that Disney programming was down 20 percent nationally in the fourth quarter of 1995. Another Nielsen source, conducted on a market-to-market basis, showed that the numbers were down 10 percent.’Which Nielsen source was correct?’ Shaw asks, shrugging his shoulders. ‘We don’t believe the numbers, we don’t have faith that the people meters measure viewing correctly, yet we have no other option but to use that service at this point.’
Shaw would like to see Nielsen return to a diary-based system such the one used during sweeps. People meters are in 5,000 homes. During sweeps, 400,000 diaries go out.
Ratings results determine the amount Buena Vista can charge for its upfront sales, and upfront sales have a direct effect on the amount of dollars Disney can put into production. Product quality affects national clearances, in light of the new competitive environment.
In this scenario, Disney faced two choices. It could either water down its product and accept a lower clearance level, or figure out a way to hold clearances and produce the same quality of programming.
Disney’s answer was to strike an innovative program alliance with Kellogg’s that begins with the 1997-98 season, whereby it will use Kellogg’s local media dollars to help clear its product. Local stations will not only get Disney programing, but will also be supported by Kellogg’s with these local spot dollars. Shaw calls it a ‘win-win-win’ situation.
For Disney, the upside is that it can continue to provide high-quality programming and Kellogg’s gets exposure in a key demographic. Affiliates are guaranteed a revenue stream.
‘It’s very exciting,’ Shaw says. ‘As of February ’96, for the fall of ’97, we are already at 80 percent clearance. We now have another 18 months to get to that last part of the country cleared to get where we’re currently at. So it’s been a smash home run.’
Buena Vista actively seeks out promotional partners in all major categories. The national promotions department reports through Shaw in ad sales. Shaw believes the key to making these relationships work is by listening, responding and often anticipating a client’s changing goals. Shaw believes that there is one last frontier that has yet to be exploited from a promotional and ad sales basis, and that’s the major retailers, such as K-Mart and Wal-Mart.
The major retail chains typically market toward females 18 to 49, mostly emphasizing price advertising. Since these stores tend to have everything a kid needs, from toys to clothes to school supplies, Shaw feels it would be a natural to appeal directly to kids. He believes that if retailers were to take their messages directly to children, if they were to make their stores a cool place to shop, or offer kids a premium incentive for shopping there, they would want to come.
His arguments have, so far, fallen on deaf ears. ‘I think they are very reluctant to take those advertising dollars and divert them into an area where they’re not sure it’s going to work.’
Shaw points to changes in the fast food market over the past five years as an illustration of innovative kid-directed retailing. McDonald’s led the charge, followed by Burger King, Pizza Hut and KFC, all of whom now recognize how important the kid business is.
‘I suspect that could and should happen with the major retailers where those kids products are lines the stores carry. I think that’s a major opportunity for us.’
Though Buena Vista has expanded into syndication of adult properties like Home Improvement, the kids part of his job is Shaw’s favorite.
‘The kids business is ingrained in the Buena Vista employee. Attitudinally, everyone understands how important that business is to the Disney Corporation. When you think of Disney, our animation is one of the first things that comes to your mind. It’s part of the fabric of Buena Vista Television.’