Television Broadcasting, Programming and

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While the television set and the radio receiver are considered to be "hardware," programming is the essential "software" that actually tempts people to use these devices. The primary function of the station or network is to provide programming content that will appeal to some segment of the audience. The ability of a station to reach its desired audience will determine its success. Its programming mission and strategy are critical to its viability. As such, programming is the most visible and most vital commodity of television.

Programming Sources

There are some basic programming strategies that are common to both radio and television. A station or network must analyze the audiences that is available during a given time of day, examine its own schedule as well as that of the competition, determine the budget and revenues that are available for that time, and—with its ultimate goals in mind—make programming decisions. The programming day is broken into several day-parts, which (in the eastern time zone) are early morning (6:00 A.M. to 9:00 A.M.); daytime (9:00 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.); early fringe (4:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M.); early evening (6:00 P.M. to 7:00 P.M.); prime access (7:00 P.M. to 8:00 P.M.); prime time (8:00 P.M. to 11:00 P.M.); late fringe (11:00 P.M. to 11:35 P.M.); late night (11:35 P.M. to 2:05 A.M.); and overnight (2:05 A.M. to 6:00 A.M.). The general manager, program director, and/or sales manager must determine the best type of program that is available for a given daypart and determine the source of the program. There are five primary sources for programming: network-fed, syndicator-delivered, independently produced, locally produced and in-house, and paid programming.

Network-Fed Programming

In the earliest days of radio broadcasting, each station produced all of its own content locally. However, the production effort and programming costs were too great for most stations to bear this. Between 1923 and 1928, stations banded together to receive programming from a single, originating station. This innovative practice of networking decreased the production effort and spread the programming costs over a number of stations. Stations that affiliated with the networks (e.g., NBC and CBS) had the option of carrying local programming or the network-fed shows. This basic model is still alive and well in the broadcast television industry.

Local television stations are generally affiliated with one of the broadcast networks. Broadcast networks include ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, WB, UPN, Pax TV, Univision, and Telemundo. An affiliated station, or affiliate, can choose to carry the programming that is fed by its network. The affiliate's agreement to broadcast the network program is a clearance, and the affiliate's decision not to broadcast a program is a preemption.

Upon clearing the show, the station airs both the show and all commercials that are sold by the network. The local station makes money on the arrangement by selling local commercial time during breaks in the network feed. These breaks are referred to as "availabilities." Generally, broadcast networks do not feed programming twenty-four hours a day. When the local station has no network feed available or decides to preempt network programming, it relies on one of the remaining sources of programming. The most common source in this situation is program syndication.

Syndicator-Delivered Programming

A syndicator is a company that makes contractual arrangements to place programs or movies on television stations and cable networks. Syndicators make a wide variety of programming available to each broadcast market and/or to cable networks. The shows range from Oprah Winfrey to The Flintstones to individual college football games. Station and cable network executives are usually responsible for examining the syndicated programming options and for conducting negotiations to obtain the rights to the programs that are best suited to their needs. Some negotiations occur at the annual National Association of Television Programming Executives convention. It is a "shopping mall" of syndicated programming options, and it is attended by syndicators and television executives.

The three most common types of syndicated packages are referred to as "first run," "off network," and "feature film packages." Feature film packages are groups of movies that are put together by a syndicator and offered to a local station. The local station negotiates the number of runs it gets for each film title, the amount of money that it may have to pay for airing the movies, and the dates and/or daypart(s) in which the film may air. Feature film packages may come with a mixture of box office hits and critical mis-fires. The station must determine the best way to use the titles to meet its programming goals.

Off-network programming refers to episodes of series that have previously played on a broadcast or cable outlets. Local stations negotiate with syndicators for episodes of series ranging from The Andy Griffith Show to Buffy, the Vampire Slayer. For the majority of successful network sitcoms and dramas, syndication is their major source of revenue. This is not surprising when one considers that off-network contractual agreements are made at virtually every television station in the United States and in many international stations and networks as well. Some successful series such as Cheers, Home Improvement, and Seinfeld have each generated hundreds of millions of dollars in syndication sales.

First-run programs are those series that have had no previous network exposure. The majority of syndicated fare is considered first run. Included in the category of first-run series are talk shows such as Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer, court shows including Judge Judy and Divorce Court, game shows such as Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy!, news/entertainment series including Entertainment Tonight and Inside Edition, and entertainment series including Xena, Warrior Princess and Hercules, the Legendary Journeys. Stations and cable networks contract with companies such as Paramount, King World, and Studios USA for the rights to syndicated series. Contractual negotiations for all syndicated programs fall into one of the following three categories: barter, cash, and cash-plus-barter.

The contract in barter syndication is the simplest. A station contracts for the rights to air a series or special. The station pays nothing for the program but must run all of the commercials that are sold by the syndicator. A one-hour program may contain fourteen minutes of commercial time or "inventory." The syndicator makes its money by selling about half of the commercial inventory in the show. The station makes its money by selling the remaining minutes of commercial availabilities in the show. Although economical, the station sacrifices a great deal of commercial inventory time in such arrangements. Barter programs are usually scheduled by frugal stations and/or in the less desirable time slots of a channel.

The contract for off-network series and some new programming is handled on a cash basis. In such cases, the station receives the series, as well as the entire commercial inventory, for a stated length of time. It attempts to turn a profit on the contract by selling advertisements. Cash deals can either be long-term contracts to run older series or short-term contracts to cover newer series with fewer numbers of episodes.

The most lucrative arrangement for the syndicator is one in which it can sell commercial inventory within a series and receive further compensation from individual stations. Such contractual agreements are called cash-plus-barter, or cash-plus. The station or network pays a cash license fee and must air the commercials that are sold by the syndicator. Unlike the barter deal in which the station is generally left with just half of the commercial inventory, cash-plus contracts leave the station with the majority of the commercial inventory. The station must attempt to recoup its investment by selling the remaining commercial availabilities. Though the cash-plus appears to be the worst value for the buyer, almost every successful daily syndicated series is sold on a cash-plus basis. This includes Oprah Winfrey, Wheel of Fortune, and Entertainment Tonight.

Independently Produced Programming

An independently produced program is one in which a station or network makes an exclusive contract with an outside producer to deliver a series, telefilm, or special. Though rare in local television programming, it is a standard operating procedure for networks. Networks make series and film commitments to producers such as Steven Bochco (Steven Bochco Productions) and Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner (Carsey-Werner) for a portion of their prime-time programming. They agree to a set amount for a project and determine the number of episodes to be delivered. The networks attempt to make their investment back through commercial sales.

Locally Produced and In-House Programming

In the early days of television, locally produced television shows ranged from children's programs to sports to news programs. Since that time, however, local productions in television have largely been limited to newscasts that air in the early morning, early evening, and late fringe time periods. Local newscasts can be the most profitable programs of a station, and they are used to establish an identity in the station's local community. Because of the heavy reliance on network and syndicated fare, some stations are returning to the concept of regularly scheduled local programs in an attempt to regain the notion of localism. Despite their relative rarity, local productions can be the most important programs of a station because they connect the station to its core audience.

For the major television networks and many cable networks, in-house programming is commonplace. NBC produces the Today Show, the Tonight Show, and others on a daily basis. The cable network E! produces Talk Soup, Mysteries & Scandals, and many other series and specials. The networks can air these shows whenever they wish and can syndicate them for added revenues.

Paid Programming

Another source of material for television outlets is that of paid programming. There are three types of paid programming: program-length commercials (i.e., infomercials), paid religion, and program-length political advertisements. In each type, the station or network sells an entire block of time to an entity in exchange for a cash payment. Through paid programs, the station lowers its programming costs and does not have to concern itself with selling commercial time. Paid programs are economically sound, but they generally deliver poor ratings and can interrupt the station's regular flow of programming. The use of any program source, including paid programming, is largely dependent on the goals of a station.

Programming Goals

Every broadcaster—commercial or noncommercial—must fulfil at least one goal: to serve the "public interest" as mandated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). To stay viable, broadcast licensees and networks watch their profit and loss statements closely. However, not everyone's programming goal is to be number one in the ratings. For the majority of stations and networks, this is unrealistic. Each broadcaster must have a set of specifically worded goals to see if it is meeting the needs of the public and the owner. These programming goals may include one or more of the following concepts: reaching a stated target audience, conserving programming resources, creating a positioning statement, branding of programming, and integrating technology.

Reaching a Stated Target Audience

Targeting the "mass audience" and striving for the top spot in the market or nation may be the goal of a station or network. Given the dizzying array of program options, most stations prefer to focus on a subset of the television audience. Stations that are affiliated with Univision and Telemundo (the Spanish-language networks) attempt to reach a significant portion of the local Hispanic audience. Other stations, such as ESPN, work to become the top sports source in the market. With that goal in mind, the station will combine live sporting events and shows that cater to the sports-minded audience. The notion of targeting specific audiences has long been associated with the magazine industry, with local and national radio, and with cable television. Since the 1980s, as programming options have continued to grow, targeting audiences has been refined and expanded to become the norm for all forms of television.

Conserving Programming Resources

Some stations or networks will sacrifice ratings to avoid the risk that is associated with high programming costs. These outlets have conserved programming costs by accepting barter programs, airing reruns, and/or allowing paid programming instead of pursuing superior programming alternatives that would involve a higher cost. As the concept of reaching a "mass audience" becomes less probable other than for major events (e.g., the Super Bowl), stations and networks will continue to lower programming risks by being very choosy in the area of high-budget programs and by relying on modest-to low-budget programs, reruns, and local and in-house productions.

Creating a Positioning Statement

A positioning statement is a one-or two-sentence description that distinguishes one business from another. In broadcasting, radio broadcasters have used positioning to help audience members make a link between the statement and the programming that is carried by the station. A statement such as "All Oldies, All the Time" can explain one's programming goal in a memorable manner. In television, the increased number of cable networks has encouraged both local stations and cable networks to adopt positioning statements. In cable, Lifetime uses "The Network for Women." In local television, "Family First" stations may make programming decisions to limit on-screen violence and offensive language, while a "Watch and Win" station may use promotional contests to call attention to its program lineup. As was the case in the magazine and radio industries, increased television outlets will result in more stations adopting program-based positioning statements.

Branding of Programming

Branding is a concept in which a show or, moreover, a block of shows is given its own unique identity. ABC uses this concept with its "TGIF" Friday night of situation comedies. This concept allows a network to target a specific audience for a portion of the day and to focus attention on that group of shows.

Integrating Technology

Stations and networks often use technological innovations to call attention to their programming, especially news and weather on local stations. Stations that are the first to adopt and actively promote digital technology, high-definition transmission, active Internet programming, and interactive television options are promoting their programs through technology. High-definition Monday Night Football games, Internet communities that are devoted to popular television shows, and interactive play-at-home versions of television games are just some of the concepts that have been successful. The convergence of digital television, Internet applications, and interactivity will be the fastest-growing area of television in the early part of the twenty-first century.

Audience Measurement

The Nielsen television ratings m easure the percentage of the television audience that is watching a particular program. Most of commercial television's best programming and first-run episodes of series are shown during the major ratings periods called the "sweeps." The sweeps months of November, February, May, and July, are the only months that Nielsen gathers audience da ta for the entire nation. Families are selected to take part in the ratings process and fill out diaries about each show that is watched in the household for a stated ratings period. Nielsen tabulates the results both for the local stations that buy the ratings information and for the national networks.

Ratings data is also collected on a daily basis. For the national ratings estimates, five thousand selected households are sampled every day, and the results are published the next day. This quantitative data, known in the industry as the "overnights," is made possible because of the "People Meter" technology. The meter attaches to the television and sends instantaneous viewership data. These meters are also used in most of the fifty largest U.S. television markets and provide stations with daily statistics. As a result of this instant ratings data, stations and networks can quickly assess which programs are living up to expectations and which ones should be moved to a different time period or eliminated from their schedules altogether. The ratings information has a direct effect on what programming the audience sees—or does not see—on its television set.

Though programming maneuvers are made based primarily on the ratings numbers, the programmer also uses qualitative information. Viewers have mounted successful write-in campaigns to save quality programs and to have offensive programming either changed or removed from the schedule. Overwhelming critical praise of shows can also sway a programmer toward keeping an underperforming show on the schedule. Research departments often obtain information from test audiences (i.e., focus groups) that screen or pre-screen television programs. A focus group may give the program producers critical insights concerning program elements that may need adjusting. Viewers, therefore, have a direct and indirect effect on the programming process from development to ultimate success or failure.

See also:Audience Researchers; Broadcasting, Government Regulation of; Broadcasting, Self-Regulation of; Cable Television, Programming of; Radio Broadcasting, Station Programming and; Ratings for Television Programs; Researchers for Educational Television Programs; Soap Operas; Talk Shows On Television; Television, Educational; Television Broadcasting; Television Broadcasting, Careers in; Television Broadcasting, History of; Television Broadcasting, Production of; Television Broadcasting, Station Operations and; Television Broadcasting, Technology of.


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David Sedman

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