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Toward a Paperless Sales System

As the Television Bureau of Advertising (TVB) begins rolling out its new electronic processing system, ePort, in the next year, TV stations hope that increased automation in their ad business will enhance—not encroach upon—the art of the sale.

The trade group announced the proposed system last month after nearly a decade of exploring ways to streamline local ad sales in an increasingly digital world. TVB expects the new system to launch in late 2007 and to be fully functioning by the first quarter of next year, with startup costs estimated at $5 million.

Although TV stations and ad agencies use their own automated systems to record and confirm orders, provide make-goods, submit invoices and collect payments, sales staffers often get bogged down in faxing orders, making follow-up calls and reconciling discrepancies.

“The real bottleneck of people's time today is just processing information,” says TVB President Chris Rohrs.

With ePort, TVB wants “to take all the non–value-added work out of the equation,” says Frank Comerford, president/general manager of WNBC New York and a member of TVB's board and E-business committee. “If my salespeople are spending all their time doing paperwork, they can't be out there selling.”

TVB conceived ePort to work in tandem with the systems used by stations and ad agencies. Using “open-standards” XML technology, the Web-based system will allow agencies and stations to send and receive orders and convert them into compatible formats.


“This is a broadcaster-funded initiative to make the process of buying and selling our media easier and more accountable for our customers,” says TVB Executive VP Abby Auerbach, who has spearheaded the initiative. “This directly answers requests from our customers, including agencies, rep firms and buying groups around the country, to help them make spot ads easier to manage.”

TVB began to tackle the issue more than eight years ago, urging vendors to develop an industry-wide system. “We tried to work with different vendors, but they wouldn't step into the breach,” says Alan Frank, president of Post-Newsweek Stations Inc. and a past TVB board chairman.

The project languished until the proliferation of new digital channels, the Web and portable media devices demanded an urgent digital solution.

“Right now, people are jury-rigging their systems,” says Rohrs. “These new digital businesses can never flourish and develop fully until they are harnessed by robust electronic processes.”

Although stations welcome the convenience of an automated system, many salespeople worry about the impact on the personal aspect of sales. “I don't want to have just an electronic marketplace, because I think you would lose something there,” says WNBC's Comerford.

As a result, ePort will not include an online-negotiation component. “TV is the type of product that needs more hands-on buying and selling, which doesn't lend itself to online negotiation,” says Rohrs. “It's the processing that lends itself to an electronic system.”

Some ad agencies, however, would like stations to consider online negotiation.

“Salespeople assume that electronic negotiation would take them out of the mix and commoditize their business more than it already is, but I think that's short-sighted,” says Janice Finkel Greene, executive VP/director of broadcast strategy at media agency Initiative. “I think there's room in the industry for both.”

Positioning for the future

As it lays the foundation for ePort, TVB is issuing requests for proposals to potential vendors. Funding from the National Association of Broadcasters will help defray startup costs, and TVB estimates yearly maintenance costs will be less than $1 million. (The group proposes stations pay the costs through user fees in order to keep the system free to ad agencies and rep firms.)

Ultimately, says Paul Karpowicz, TVB board chairman and president of the Meredith Broadcast Group, ePort is about positioning broadcasters for the future: “We want to make sure that local broadcasters have positioned themselves with agencies and rep firms as the place to go to get their messages out. Making the buying process easier just helps that.”

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