WFSB: Why give it away?

For years, WFSB, the CBS affiliate in Hartford-New Haven, Conn., has been a favorite of viewers in the adjacent Springfield, Mass., market. And now, advertisers will pay a premium to reach those viewers.

WFSB has struck a deal with AT&T, the dominant cable operator serving the Springfield-Holyoke market, to provide a separate WSFB feed that contains different advertisements from those shown in Hartford-New Haven.

That can't be welcome news for the NBC and ABC stations in Springfield ( WWLP and WGGB , respectively), which up to now have been the only two stations selling ad time there.

There is no CBS affiliate in Springfield. WFSB has had CBS network exclusivity in Springfield for years but never before has tried to sell local time there. WFSB already has a big following in Springfield. It's tops in the ratings at 4 p.m. with Oprah, and a number of CBS shows win their time period, says WFSB General Manager Al Bova.

Now he hopes to "monetize" that viewership by feeding separate ads into the market. Bova believes he can generate double-digit revenue growth, while grabbing a double-digit share of the Springfield TV ad market, previously divided by WWLP and WGGB.

The general managers at WWLP and WGGB hadn't returned calls for comment by deadline last week.

AT&T will serve as WSFB's local sales rep in the Springfield market. AT&T also has an agreement to sell ad time for the other cable operator in the market, Charter, on whose system the Springfield-targeted WFSB signal will also air. Bova says WSFB 's national sales rep, HRP, will sell separate spots for the Hartford-New Haven and Springfield markets.

Hartford-New Haven is currently the 27th-ranked Nielsen designated market area (DMA), with almost 916,000 television households. Springfield-Holyoke is the 105th market, with almost 243,000 TV homes. With the separate feed, WFSB will increase its advertising base of saleable households by 26%.

And those are households that advertisers used to get as a bonus with their WFSB ads. "Some agencies reacted adversely because we're taking away something they used to get for free," says Bova. "But most found it an opportunity because they can put different weight levels in the two markets. They can buy different programming and run different copy. If they have the Connecticut Chevrolet dealers and Massachusetts Chevrolet dealers, they can buy it separately."

The technology is not new. A server at the AT&T cable headend feeds different spots into the WSFB Springfield signal. "We control it from Hartford," says Bova. "We put a signal in the vertical blanking interval, and our master-control operator puts a cue tone in that signal that controls the [advertising] breaks."

Currently, the program lineups on both signals are the same, but that could change over time. Bova says the station wants to create a separate newscast for the Springfield channel, but that's probably a year away.

Right now, the station is working hard to give the Springfield signal a new look tailored to the market, starting first with network and syndication programs and then the local news. "Our positioning in Hartford-New Haven right now is 'Connecticut's News Station,'" Bova says. "You can imagine that doesn't play as well in Chicopee, Mass."

By competing in the market, WFSB will double the number of available gross rating points in some time periods. The 4-5 p.m. slot is a good example. Oprah averages a 3.5 rating in the Springfield market, but, up to now, advertisers couldn't buy it without buying all of the Hartford market. Sally Jessy Raphael on WGGB and Arrest & Trial on WLLP combine for an average 3.0 rating.

"Some advertisers tell us they buy around early fringe in the market because they can't get Oprah," Bova says. They can now.