Spot Versus Chain Broadcasting
( Originally Published 1932 )
WHETHER to broadcast over a network, or through individual stations, theoretically is a question fraught with perplexities. However, for any specific broadcast program, the problem usually settles itself once the various factors involved are understood. Both types of broadcasting are valuable to the advertiser, yet, in general, their services are non-competitive, and it is rare for them to come into serious conflict.
Though programs originated by one advertiser on several different stations preceded the formation of networks, the term "spot broadcasting" is of more recent origin and was coined to differentiate the placing of programs on individual stations from the release of a single program over a network.
Consideration of whether to use network or spot broad-casting would be almost entirely academic unless it were agreed that transcription offers an entirely satisfactory method of broadcasting. Without transcription, the mere cost of talent, if the program were presented by different talent units on each station, usually would make spot broadcasting impossible. The mediocrity or unavailability of specific types of talent in many communities raises an additional barrier, as does the difficulty of maintaining a satisfactorily artistic production and announcing standard. Consequently, it is easy to understand why extensive use of spot broadcasting did not develop until modern transcriptions made it practicable. There are, however, three types of non-transcription programs widely executed under spot broadcasting agreements.
The first of these is that bugaboo of the radio audience —the announcement. Since bald commercial announcements are not accepted by the networks, the advertiser who wishes to use them perforce must contract with the individual stations. If he will cut his message short enough, on some stations he may ride like a parasite between the network programs, while on practically all stations he may place an announcement varying in length from a half minute to five minutes for broadcast between selections by a studio orchestra or the studio phonograph.
Similarly, he may contract for the sponsorship of such services as weather reports, time signals, stock market reports, road conditions, etc.
The third type of non-transcription broadcast most often placed with the individual station is cooperative participation in the independent station's cooking school, home economics hour, etc. Here the advertiser turns his commercial problem over to the studio staff, allowing them to supply both the entertainment and the commercial message.
It is customary to visualize chain broadcasting in terms of the three transcontinental networks, and to contrast the sales policies of the major networks with the freedom in station selection allowed the advertiser when spot broadcasting is used. However, the advertiser who has thoroughly familiarized himself with chain broadcasting facilities is likely to find a network well suited to his own requirements.
If he wishes to broadcast his message to the entire country, he has the choice of three national networks, offering him intensive coverage in 54, 61, and 79 trading areas respectively, and so situated that no matter which of the three he chooses, there is scarcely a county of the nation's three thousand in which his program cannot be heard under normal reception conditions. If his distribution is sectional, he is likely to find a network closely paralleling his own activities. New England offers him two competing networks from which to make his choice. The Pacific Coast affords him three. If he sells only in the South, a network is ready-made for him, and in several states, in Indiana, Wisconsin, Texas, Montana, and Washington, to mention but a partial list, the semi-local advertiser may find networks coinciding with his distribution.
Highly flexible also are the coverage units offered by the national chains. In the less desirable hours, almost any moderately compact list of stations may be selected, while at all times, strategic additions to the basic network enable the advertiser with extensive, but less than national distribution, to cover his important territories thoroughly without reaching into sections where his product does not go.
Where no satisfactory network exists, many advertisers have created one. They have made their own choice of stations, and have arranged to have these stations linked by telephone to broadcast a program originated at one of them. Because of the rate structure on which such arrangements are founded, they are only practical under certain conditions. Unless the stations are comparatively close together, line charges are likely to be prohibitive. If there are many stations in an advertiser's private chain, he is likely to find himself paying decidedly more than transcriptions would cost him. But where the enter-prise of the station owners has not supplied such facilities, many an advertiser has found himself richly repaid by creating them.
With so many network combinations available, it might seem that the advertiser, if he had the slightest traditional preference for "live" broadcasts as compared with transcriptions, would use chain broadcasting. However, there are a large number of situations under which the advertiser's choice of spot broadcasting is almost automatic.
When a manufacturer proposes to allow his dealers to pay a portion, usually half, of the cost of the broadcast, he must use the dealer's local station or give up the idea. From a national standpoint he might be entirely satisfied with the coverage of Oil City provided by a Pittsburgh station, or with coverage of Dayton supplied by a Cincinnati station. From the local standpoint, however, a wealth of experience has shown that it is a most exceptional dealer who is willing to pay even a pro rata share of the cost of broadcasting in another city. When a dealer cooperates in contributing to the cost of advertising on his local station, he knows that the bulk of his money is benefiting him, and not some distant dealer. Even when, as often happens, a more powerful station in a near-by city has more listeners in the community than the local station, the dealer almost invariably prefers to spend his money for a broadcast which he can call his own.
Perhaps the advertiser fully expects to pay the entire cost himself. However, his product is sold through exclusive distributors, or perhaps through his own factory branch representatives, and he believes that he will profit if he can mention a local address, give a local telephone number, and identify the broadcast with the local outlet. Here again spot broadcasting supplies the radio medium, since it makes possible a local identification comparable to that obtainable in newspapers or posters.
Moreover, spot broadcasting has been an almost automatic choice of many manufacturers who were expecting to pay the entire cost of the program, and who had no interest in securing local identification. Suppose an advertiser has distribution in Boston, New York, Washington, Cleveland, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and that these are the only cities in which sales possibilities warrant advertising. If he is to use radio at all it must be by spot broadcasting.
There is one advertiser whose distribution is complete along the Pacific Coast. Then his sales territory skips to the Central Mississippi Valley, coming south from Duluth to St. Louis, reaching as far west as Kansas City and as far east as Chicago. On the Pacific Coast alone, several networks offer him complete and adequate cover-age. But his Mississippi Valley distribution coincides with no purchasable network unit, and it is so far flung that to form a network of his own would entail prohibitive line costs, even supposing such a step were advisable from other standpoints. Consequently, this advertiser is using spot broadcasting not only in the Mississippi Valley territory, but also on the Pacific Coast, since the fact that the programs already have been prepared for the Middle West makes spot broadcasting the most economical method on the Pacific Coast.
Sometimes the very nature of the program itself dictates whether or not it shall be produced by spot broadcasting or by a network arrangement. One program, a few years ago, during the course of a two-hour session presented some twelve bands from as many European cities. At that time, it would have been impossible to have produced the program except by transcription, and consequently by spot broadcasting. Even to-day, to pro-duce a program of that sort for direct network broadcast would involve prohibitive expense.
On the other hand, such a program as a broadcast of the Sistine Choir on Christmas Eve owes its drawing power and potency to the very fact that the Sistine Choir is being heard direct. Programs of this sort cannot be transcribed with full effectiveness, and thus call for network production in order that the listener may feel that he or she is, in very truth, hearing the artists personally.
In a discussion of whether to broadcast by chain hook-up or by spot contract, many half truths and fallacies have had wide circulation. Each of these contentions has its portion of truth and value, yet, quite often, they are greatly over-rated.
For instance, much is often made of the claim that by spot broadcasting, the advertiser can secure his favorite hour, say, eight o'clock, from coast to coast, whereas when he places his program over a network, ten o'clock in New York becomes nine in Chicago, eight in Denver, and seven in San Francisco. Certainly, it is true that the advertiser using a network has his program coming on the air at different times in different sections of the country. On the other hand, studies of listening habits have shown that for three hours during the evening, there is a comparatively minor variation in the total amount of radio listening, while the very fact that some of the featured programs of the network arrive on the Pacific Coast during the fourth hour (from six to seven) has produced an abnormally high listening audience there as compared with more easterly sections of the country. Furthermore, when the spot broadcaster begins to negotiate for time with individual stations, he finds that his theoretical freedom of choice is greatly limited. More than half of the network stations are under definite contractual agreement to deliver the preferred hours to the network on request. The others in actual practice deliver a large percentage of their best hours to the network, so that on the stations where it is most important for the advertiser to have the best time available he is likely to find it very difficult—in many cases, impossible—to secure a particular hour of the evening even though he is willing to take any day of the week.
Similarly, some advertisers have been much impressed by the argument that through spot broadcasting they can stagger their program over different days of the week and thus gain several chances to reach the same audience. Perhaps the radio listener will be so anxious to hear the Whoozis program that having missed it on his local station Wednesday night, he will tune in a more distant station, to which he is not habitually accusomed to listening, in order to get it on Thursday night. However, it is generally recognized that the day of searching for distant stations is practically over, and that the listener has a tendency to tune in only a few near-by stations for his programs. Thus, unless duplicating coverage is purchased, there appears to be little weight in this argument.
It is often asserted that spot broadcasting is more economical than network broadcasting. Certainly from the standpoint of talent costs, this is often true. Whether or not the saving in talent costs is reflected in a saving on the total cost of the program depends on the number of stations involved. If a large number of stations is used, the cost of recording and pressing often far offsets the talent saving.
Whether or not the advertiser will find spot broad-casting more economical than network advertising depends on the coverage he desires.
The advertiser who makes such an analysis for himself will discover that, in the densely populated areas, net-work broadcasting is far more economical than spot broadcasting, while in the more scattered markets spot broadcasting affords decided economies.
Wherever the radio campaign is to be broadcast, spot broadcasting has one outstanding advantage—it enables the advertiser to select the specific stations he desires without having to take the weak with the strong. In spite of this fact, comparatively few advertisers with a strictly entertainment program capable of chain origination have used spot broadcasting for complete national coverage when none of the cost was defrayed by local dealers or distributors. The only exceptions have been companies anxious to secure the most intensive coverage possible—advertisers who found the sum total of stations on any of the coast-to-coast networks inadequate for the concentrated drive they had in mind, and who therefore purchased time on two to three times as many stations as any network can offer.
Certainly, both network and spot broadcasting facilities are essential if the radio medium is to be fitted to the need of the various types of advertisers who are using it so profitably today. And the wise radio advertiser is the one who chooses the method of broadcasting best adapted to his own requirements.