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GMs fear ad slowdown

A year ago in BROADCASTING & CABLE's annual NATPE survey of station general managers, 83% of those polled predicted that the broadcast advertising economy would be better in 2000 than in 1999. And they were right: 2000 turned out to be a banner year. Maybe it wasn't the hardest year to call. It was an Olympic and political year after all.

This year, a solid majority of those polled say the 2001 ad outlook is an easy call, too, But the news isn't so good. Almost 70% of those polled predict a flat or down year for 2001. Nearly 90% of those surveyed characterized the current broadcast environment as "stagnant" or "depressed."

Besides the economy, the survey shows that U.S. broadcasters have a number of concerns about their business as they head to NATPE-and fewer say they are headed to the show than in previous years.

Most of the respondents have concerns about the digital era. First and foremost, they aren't ready for it, with 68% saying the FCC ought to delay implementation of digital TV service. They also believe that the current transmission standard is flawed and that other standards, such as COFDM, ought to be embraced as alternatives as a matter of policy. About two-thirds of the respondents said alternatives to the current standard, 8-VSB, should be authorized.

Although many stations reaped a windfall last year from political advertising, a significant minority responded to pleas from regulators to offer free time to political candidates. One-third of those surveyed said they made such an offer; two-thirds said they did not.

The weaker broadcast economy may lead to a less active NATPE, at least among domestic station managers looking for programs to buy. Indeed, 72% of the general managers surveyed said they aren't going to the show this year; 28% said they plan to attend. Last year, 62% of the general managers polled weren't planning to attend, while 37% said they did plan to attend (1% didn't know).

And fewer station managers are looking to buy shows this year. Forty-one percent of those going say they're basically going for the schmooze fest, with no plans to buy shows. Another 44% say they buy one or two programs at the show. A year ago, 28% had no plans to buy shows at the conference, and 48% were planning to buy one or two.

There also appears to be growing discontent with the product being offered by syndicators. More than half of those polled-56%-said they are dissatisfied with the first-run development for next season. The reason most often cited: lack of quality and creativity.

That's up from last year, when 49% expressed dissatisfaction with the 2000-01 development fare.

And many of the station executives surveyed said they are intrigued by the recent programming-development alliance created by NBC, Hearst-Argyle and Gannett. In fact, 61% consider such alliances a viable way of addressing shortcomings in the syndication marketplace.

Election night weighed heavily on those polled. Forty percent said the networks should disband voting-data-collection cooperative, Voter News Service.