Delayed broadcasts draw local scrutiny

TV: WBAL raises questions about technology that allows more ads to be aired during programming.

November 06, 2001|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN TELEVISION WRITER

A CBS-owned station in Pittsburgh has acknowledged that it slowed its broadcasts of ostensibly live football games to slip in extra commercials. That disclosure has opened up the practices of other CBS-owned stations, including Baltimore's WJZ, to sharp questions within the industry.

Analyses conducted by competitor WBAL-TV suggest that WJZ is routinely adding commercial spots to primetime programming beyond what CBS contractually allows on the air at stations it does not own.

"If the allegations are true, and they seem to be, CBS has a double-standard," said Bill Fine, general manager for WBAL (Channel 11), an NBC affiliate. Fine's station is owned by Hearst-Argyle, which also owns CBS-affiliated stations in Louisville, Ky., and Des Moines, Iowa. Fine said he wants CBS to make sure that WJZ does not follow the practice, which he says drains advertisers' dollars.

For the past several years, WBAL has been locked in a bitter ratings battle with WJZ.

Jay Newman, general manager for WJZ (Channel 13), denied that his station has ever used technology to delay the broadcast of live football games. He referred all other questions to CBS headquarters in New York.

Mike Gerst, marketing director for CBS-owned KDKA in Pittsburgh, said his station erred in using the technology during the broadcast of a Steelers game last month. Local newspapers there covered the incident after viewers who had chosen to watch the game with the sound turned down heard radio broadcasters describing plays that had not yet materialized on television.

"It was a poor decision," CBS spokesman Dana McClintock said yesterday of the delay in the football broadcast. "It cannot happen again. It will not happen again."

McClintock said he would not comment on the analyses conducted for CBS' local competitors in Baltimore and other television markets that appear to show his network's stations are squeezing additional ads into popular programming.

Room for the added commercials can be generated through use of a so-called "time machine" that can record a show and freeze its broadcast in progress. The broadcast can then start up again on delay, much like a paused CD or tape. Additionally, some stations have compression technology that allows the deletion of successive, nearly identical frames. The saving of 900 such frames can be translated into a 30-second slot to be sold to another advertiser.

KDKA uses compression technology to record the CBS Evening News, so it can air live footage of the selection of lottery numbers each night and then return to the end of anchor Dan Rather's newscast.

Advocates for its use say the "time machines" are not used to eat into the content of shows but steal away dead time that is imperceptible to the eye. Some television stations routinely "compress" re-run syndicated programs, but primetime and network shows have been considered sacrosanct, television officials said.

"I know CBS would frown mightily on stations shrinking down their programming for more spots," said Gary Wordlaw, the general manager for the CBS affiliate in Syracuse, N.Y. "For a large market like [Baltimore], substantial revenue would be generated."

An analysis conducted for WBAL by CMR, a marketing and research firm, documents what it says are extra spots broadcast by WJZ that would not be granted to affiliates not owned by CBS. WBAL officials acknowledge they are not certain that WJZ uses the compression technology to make room for the extra ads.

For the week of Sept. 26, for example, WBAL's consultant indicates that WJZ shoehorned an extra six minutes and five seconds of commercials into primetime programming. Last week, WBAL staffers compiled logs by comparing WJZ videotapes to formats of CBS affiliates. The WBAL staffers say they found that WJZ created an additional 120 seconds of ad time on Oct. 29 beyond what other CBS affiliates were allowed.

Advertising executive Howard Maleson of the Breakthrough Group estimated that a 30-second spot on WJZ during CBS prime-time shows would cost between $2,000 and $10,000.

WJZ's Newman and CBS' McClintock would not answer questions on whether the Baltimore station used technology or altered network programming to insert additional commercials.

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