Guest Post: Super Groups and Sonic Branding

We’ve got a guest post today from Stephen Arnold, president of Stephen Arnold Music, which provides “news music” to TV stations and original scores for various TV networks and other clients. There’s been a lot of talk about editorial voices in the age of consolidation–as today’s Washington Post notes, fewer distinct news outfits chasing stories and looking out for the community.

Given his background, Arnold takes a different tack, looking at how an individual station’s local identity–namely, the “sonic branding” that sets it apart from the competition–might be affected by all the M&A.


Mergers & Acquisitions, Station Groups & Sonic Brands

They don’t usually drill this deep in the Wall Street Journal, but mergers and acquisitions among station groups can raise some serious challenges that go beyond the balance sheets.

M&A activity is going strong in our industry as we speak. Sinclair Broadcast Group just paid $985 million for Allbritton’s seven ABC affiliates, plus the NewsChannel 8 cable network in Washington. A few weeks before that, Gannett acquired Belo and its 20 TV stations for $2.2 billion. Nexstar added Communications Corporation of America and White Knight Broadcasting netting 19 additional stations; while Tribune acquired Local TV in July.

As these mega-transactions unfold, one of the issues that insightful executives will look to is the implications for all of the stations’ brands. An essential component to making an emotional connection with a viewer is through music and how a station is identified by its sonic brand–the unique melody used for brand identity. We call it the aural equivalent of a graphic logo, or the “John Hancock” of music (Think McDonald’s, NBC, or Intel). Successfully maintaining each station’s distinct sound will require the direct attention of those in charge.

Doubling Up

Once a station group purchase is complete, the music associated with each outlet’s image, news promotion and news programming has to be reassessed by all of the creative directors involved.

That’s especially true because the sound and brand of a station goes far beyond the TV speakers today: it emanates from PCs, iPads, tablets and phones. Their effectiveness isn’t just measured in ratings, but also all along the social data graph.

For a foreshadowing, take a look to the executive level, with the economies of scale that accompany a changing of the guard. The newly combined broadcast conglomerate doesn’t need two presidents or two CFOs.

That same thinking often trickles down to how the individual stations are branded, and how they operate. It’s an economic fact of life that eliminating redundancies at every level can save money–if things are moving too fast, the sonic branding may be subjected to the same thinking.

Creative and Conglomerates

While anything is possible, there are two distinct media production models that you can expect to see when M&A takes place. Both are intended to save money, but can seriously affect the unique sonic branding that stations have worked so hard to cultivate prior to the convergence.

One is the “Production Hub” model. That’s where one centralized, internal department is assigned to handle creative–on-air graphics, sonic branding, Web/mobile–for all of the stations in the group, often with one basic package being shared by everybody. While that can make things more efficient and cost-effective, it also threatens the local flavor of each outlet: Music that has been crafted to work well in Tucson probably won’t fly in Philadelphia.

Despite the streamlined workflows and savings that may result, creative confusion is a real danger. The different goals of the various regional stations may clash, as will the overall brand voice of the old and new corporate regimes. These disparities often register with the average viewer, and can quickly damage ties that took years to nurture.

The other prevalent model is working with a music provider’s market-exclusive, syndicated news music catalog. This gives each station a range of musical styles and instrumentations to choose from that best matches their specific market and brand position.

For example, one station might want a big, sweeping, panoramic sound, whereas another might want a high energy, guitar and percussion driven sound. There is a growing trend in media markets across the country to “go local” or “hyper local,” and local television is exactly that: “local”. That’s why the music choices a station makes for their news music, image and station promos are integral to each market and individual station’s identity.

Beating the Balance Sheet

When post M&A-redundancies are being pared back, it can be easy for a corporate accountant to confuse helicopters and teleprompters with the music and sound designs that make up sonic branding–there can be a temptation to look at every expense and say, “This is a commodity.”

One way that music providers like us address this situation is to build in a flexible approach to the sonic branding plan right from the start. Our recommendation to our stations is to, as much as the budgets will allow, create a variety of different-sounding stylistic arrangements with a variety of mixes and sonic touches. This way, one overall theme can still branch out to have a sound that’s more indigenous to each station’s specific market.

But remember: Take care not to create a sonic brand that’s too much of a novelty, to the point that it has a shelf life. Most media consumers can smell a fake a mile away. Authenticity always has to be in the mix.

Branding on Budget

Ultimately, stations thrive when they forge a genuine, emotional connection with the viewer. That link leads to a more consistent, loyal viewership. From there, it translates into higher ratings and an upward bump on the social media graph.

Even after a billion-dollar acquisition, there’s no reason why that precious connection can’t be maintained. With the right strategy, a station’s sound should continue to resonate. What’s better is that it can all be achieved economically–that’s a branding success.

Stephen Arnold, president of Stephen Arnold Music

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.