Question regarding the way TV commercials are aired on local cable systems
December 22, 2006 5:31 PM   Subscribe

Question regarding the way TV commercials are aired on local cable systems.

Every so often we watch Cartoon Network or Comedy Central - it's just about the only TV we watch. I can't help but notice that the commercials running are lo-fi, locally-produced ones for NYC-area enterprises, and that frequently, when they end, there's an interval of second or two in which the last bit of the national commercial running on the network is clearly visible.

Aren't the national advertisers paying for the privilege of reaching our household? Aren't they rather prevented from doing so by the local spots playing in the slot for which they've presumably ponied up? How on earth does our local cable provider, RCN - who I loathe for good and sufficient reasons, though not ones germane to the question at hand - justify this practice? (Bear in mind, I have absolutely no sympathy for advertisers, or interest in seeing the crap they're peddling. I just find this confounding as a business practice.)

Maybe one of you-all with industry experience can square me away here?
posted by adamgreenfield to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've read (I think in responses another AskMe question about this same thing) that for the commercials, national networks designate a portion of the time that local systems can use to show local ads. BUT, rather than leaving the space empty, they put in more of the national ads (I assume this is in case a local system doesn't fill of the available space, so there's not just dead air).
posted by Godbert at 6:10 PM on December 22, 2006

I can't tell you the details but I do know that it is designed to work like this. The national network feed has signals embedded into it which are designed to trigger automated equipment to switch over and play the local ads during certain segments. I think that each station can choose to sell these spots to local advertisers or just run with the national ads that come over the feed. In any case there is zero deception going on as everybody is in on the loop and stations report their exact actions to the networks and the advertisers, who get a pretty exact picture of how many stations ran each ad. With the amount of money that is made and spent on TV advertising that is the only way the system could function.
posted by Rhomboid at 6:14 PM on December 22, 2006

Malaysia's ASTRO does this for every non-Malaysian channel they carry: I think this is because it's illegal to show non-Malaysian advertising on Malaysian air.
posted by divabat at 6:15 PM on December 22, 2006

Rhomboid has it right. I used to work with a company that manufacturers the equipment.

They've since moved into other arena's but I believe they're also serving the local affiliate market. It was a cool company to work with because its so amazing to see the timing involved. From what I remember, its less about the networks sending a 'signal' to the local affiliate and more about inserting an ad at an incredibly specific TIME. Its been a while since I dealt with it, but its a totally legit practice. Time is alloted for affiliates to insert local ads.
posted by Thrillhouse at 6:31 PM on December 22, 2006

The national spots you see running that seem to get cut off are sold as "local break" spots to advertisers. In most markets the local cable company will sell the space for their own ads. In most cases, they'll run house ads -- ads for PPV movies and other services of the cable company or local PSAs. There's not a lot of people seeing that national spot. Smaller cable markets might have trouble selling the inventory so they might run a lot more of the national advertising. National advertisers will sometimes buy that local time as well to boost reach and frequency in certain markets. Advertising nationally on Battlestar Gallactica can be spendy so a national advertiser might just by Comcast markets in the midwest. The viewer shouldn't notice the difference -- except big national advertisers tend to have higher production values in their spots.

If you see the local spot stepping on the national advertiser, the system is out of sync. Don't worry. The national advertiser isn't paying for you to see that spot so they aren't getting ripped off.

When advertisers buy these "local break" spots they know they are only buy markets that can't sell spots in their markets and are getting a discount. This remnant inventory is pretty cheap since it will only run in a handful of markets. Sometimes the network will give this inventory away to advertisers that pay for nationwide spots.
posted by birdherder at 6:40 PM on December 22, 2006

I run TV technology for one of the large media companies.

The practice you are describing is called "local avails".

Basically, the cable companies (Time Warner, Comcast, etc.) pay subscription fees to cable networks (CNN, ESPN, etc.). The cable companies pay A LOT for the channels and in return get the right to air their own commercials for a specified time every hour. Then then get the revenue from the commercial airings.

The cable networks send a signal, usually inaudible, that tells the local cable headend when to insert the local commercial. It is not time based triggering, it is based on this signal.

If you listened to CNN years ago, you used to be able to hear the audible cue tones (like a touch tone phone) just before the commercial breaks.
posted by Argyle at 6:43 PM on December 22, 2006 [3 favorites]

It's interesting to note also that cable systems in large metropolitan areas -- for example, Houston-Galveston-etc in my case -- have the ability to sort of "micro target" advertising to specific localities within their area.

My local commercials on cable channels are either specific to Galveston County and in some cases Galveston Island, or else applicable to the entire metro area. Other customers receive ads specific to their locality in addition to the metro-wide ads.

I suppose this is similar in technology to our receiving Galveston City Council broadcasts on "local access" rather than other cities' broadcasts. Everything on your cable system can be localized.
posted by Robert Angelo at 6:44 PM on December 22, 2006

I'm repeating a bit of what was already said, but I worked a little in provisioning/ad sales at a local cable company. The local sales force is very local - in this case there were 4 different regions within two counties.
The cable company had three head ends where the feeds came in - and the ads that ran were different for each head end.
The ad sales staff lined up the ads - usually several, badly produced ads done right there in their junky little studio - in the provisioning software in sequence for the allocated window from the feed . At or near the expected time, the feeds would send the tones, triggering the ads to run one after the other, each with their own volume leveling and production values.
I'm sure the process is different now - the work we were doing (in 2000) was to replace the old Commodore Amiga based cable schedule with the new "TV Guide Channel" machines... but the ads are just as crappy.
posted by disclaimer at 6:35 AM on December 23, 2006

I work for a national broadcast network, and the way we do this is a little different. We have slots for national ads, that advertisers buy directly from us, and then we have slots that are available for local affiliates, that they get as part of their agreement with the network.

Because we don't ever ship dead air on the network feed, we always fill up the affiliate slots with Public Service Announcements and network promos, but never with commercials. The local affiliates then just switch from our feed to show their own commercials at the appropriate time. If something goes wrong, or if the affiliate hasn't sold that slot, then there's something there to fill up the time.
posted by bshort at 9:42 AM on December 23, 2006

This happens all the time in Canada--either when something is being simulcast on a local and an American channel, or just on the American ones. Sometimes even the logo on the bottom of the screen will be the worng one. Sometimes its irritating (commercials cutting in and out, as mentioned) but its preferable to commercials for things we can't get here, which is just obnoxious. I'm getting tired of being told I can watch House/CSI/Grey's Anatomy/etc on the network website, since as I live in Canada, I can't.

The funny thing is, most of the "local, lo-fi" commercials are American themselves (a lot of upstate NY/Buffalo, as I'm in Toronto). The hilariously amateur-hour commercials for nearby businesses tend to stick to the Toronto-area channels.

Point being, it's clearly not as well targeted as it could be.
posted by sarahkeebs at 11:32 AM on December 23, 2006

« Older ColdFusion designed websites   |   Help me use my Garmin GPS device with my Powerbook Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.