The Ticket to Web Heaven? Use Your Call Letters

WTOC11_LOGOA lot of the fun started seeping out of local television when call letters were foolishly replaced with cookie-cutter network/channel number IDs like ABC7 and NBC5.  For a person who plays a pretty mean game of call letter trivia (wanna know what WIS, WGN, WSB, WTOC and WFTS stand for?  I’m your guy), the perfectly idiotic march away from decades of history that all those call letters represented was depressing indeed.

Now I’ve confessed to my own local television nostalgia, and just the other night over drinks, I bemoaned the loss of the Sears Tower name for that tall building in Chicago.  I hated it when South Florida’s proud Joe Robbie Stadium became the decidedly lame Pro Player Stadium, and, well, you get the idea.

So here’s my message to local television stations trying to dig a deep trench around their turf on the web:  don’t get clever and for Heaven’s sake forget about your network affiliation.

Go old school.  Use your call letters.

As I’ve reported here, lots of companies think there’s money to be made by owning the dominant online news site in any given market.  NBC–being NBC–bought up “NBC(YourTownNameHere)” domains from Presque Isle to San Diego.  But guess what sites do the best in terms of grabbing people’s attention and, more importantly, holding on to it?

WRAL:  Calls as Old as Jesse Helms

WRAL: Calls as Old as Jesse Helms

Sites with call letters and obvious connections to years of covering news in any given town.  Sites like WRAL.com in Raleigh. What affiliate is WRAL? Who cares. Here’s what’s important:  the station’s website dominates all others in Raleigh in terms of minutes spent reading news and, perhaps, checking out those web ads:  the average total minutes spent on wral.com, according to research by Internet Broadcasting was 156 minutes.

By comparison, the minutes spent figure for ABC O&O WPVI in Philadelphia, which uses the domain 6abc.com, was a mere 5.5 minutes.

The numbers don’t hold true for every market–in some places, like Sacramento, kcra.com has a low total minutes figure of 3.4–but by and large, the call letters that have juice seem to translate from television to the internet.

As Arul Sandaram at Internet Broadcasting told me, “While this is clearly just one data point, and much work still needs to be done in getting stations to fully embrace their future as cross platform content/distribution companies, I am hoping you see this data as we do: as a spot of promise for the local TV industry.”

CBS Has Been Nice, But KSL Knows Those Calls Are Their Brand and They OWN THEM.

CBS Has Been Nice, But KSL Knows Those Calls Are Their Brand and They OWN THEM.

It tells me one thing.  Embrace what got you this far, and don’t throw it away.  If you have nearly half a century of equity in an identity, why not use it? WFAA in Dallas does, and they have one of the highest “time spent” figures in the study at 30.7 minutes.

Salt Lake’s KSL has a similarly strong number at 61.8. Both stations, in case you weren’t sure, use their calls as their web ID.  It’s not the magic bullet, but I think it’s a logical step, especially if you’re in a market where the online competition is a newspaper with 100 years of equity in its name.

WFMY:  Bring Back the Dancing Elf Guy!

WFMY: Bring Back the Dancing Elf Guy!

So WFMY in Greensboro, North Carolina?  Here’s my free advice to you.

You went on the air in 1949 as WFMY (trivia challenge: what do the calls mean?). The guys over at WBTV went on the air the same year.  There’s a lot of history there.  And the paper in town, the News and Record (www.news-record.com), has roots to 1890.  So if somebody who lives in Greensboro wants to know what’s up in town, what makes you think they’ll sit down at the computer keyboard and have the impulse to type in www.digtriad.com?

C’mon, people.  If we intend to survive as local news operations, we’ve got to think.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “The Ticket to Web Heaven? Use Your Call Letters

  1. Great post. I don’t know jack about marketing, but I absolutely agree.

    That said, a friend recently posted on facebook that she was returning to work at WAGA. Another friend commented, saying: What does that stand for?

    (The correct answer is “Atlanta GA.” But these days– not sure the kidz who search the web are as call-letter savvy as the oldsters to whom call letters have the best recognizability…)

    • I totally agree. I realize this is a time-sensitive issue. But there are also kids who know Wrigley Field without associating it with the gum, or the Chrysler Building without having any clue about a car connection. I think it may be the same with call letters. Or, I’m just a complete dork who hates to see a good pub game go the way of the 3/4 deck and all our jobs.

  2. Chris

    I agree as well. It could be argued that networks are the albatross around the neck of the locals…hurting more than helping. The more iconic the call-letters (e.g Boston’s WBZ up here) the more value in standing alone…network affiliation be damned.

  3. Yeah, completely agree. No one cares what your new ND decided to name the station: whether you’re currently NewsCenter8, NBC8, 8NBC, Action 8 News, Local 8, NBC Topeka, LiveLocalLeightbreaking, whatever, here’s the deal: 40% of your viewers are going to keep calling you “Channel 8,” like they have since before you were born; 40% are going to keep calling you WXYZ or whatever your God-given calls are; the other 20% are still calling you by the branding management threw away two years and three ND’s ago, probably “Eyewitness News.”

    You’d hope WBZ’s lesson would be instructive, but apparently not.

  4. kristenej

    So agree, on this. And you used two of the CBS stations I hold dear to my heart. I grew up watching WFMY(which in my coming up years was known as News 2). In our house, even though the cable channel was 9, turning to channel 2 meant turning to WFMY. I never fancied their website too much even back then. When I moved to Raleigh for college, I would drive past WRAL practically every day so I’d start watching them for my news. However, I stopped watching TV news when I got too busy(or wasn’t required for my communication classes). WRAL’s website was a secondary for me(I was more in tune to the News and Observer website). I’d heard about the whole DigTriad thing from my parents and I really didn’t like the setup (plus the name is corny). However, WRAL is a good website and I’d go to it now if I still lived in the area. Now, I have nothing really, since none of the local affiliate websites are good and the on air talent is only so-so.

  5. steve

    respectfully disagree.

    maybe gannett, hearst, lin, gray, new vision, (some) young and a few “un-named” groups just (july ’09) registered all their available abc, cbs and nbc “city-branded”.coms because they had extra $$$ laying around?

    tv people are the only ones i run into that think call-letters mean w”sqt”.

    • Steve,

      No, definitely not an “extra money” move, that’s for sure. However, the broadcast groups you list wouldn’t really get any “wise spending” awards from folks inside or outside the business, and their bottom lines back that up.

      As for call letters, sure, TV people talk about them (obviously) more than your regular folk and I admit I’m a geek for them. But beyond the trivia and the nostalgia, there’s brand equity. And trading that for a link to a network–that is moving far and fast in its own direction and away from the local station model–is, to me, a dangerous and short-sighted business decision.

      Mark

  6. steve

    fair enough.

    and thank you for allowing me to comment.

    all the best!

  7. Mike Daly

    Are any of the stations who use their call letters for the web address owned by families instead of being O&O’s? I know WAGA kicked the WAGA theme out the door when they became a Fox O&O and thereafter Fox5.

    • Mike,

      I think a lot of smaller market family-owned companies joined the NETWORK/CHANNEL NUMBER drive a while back, but I wonder, given the chill in the air between stations and networks, if that doesn’t seem like a great way to build brand equity for a network at your own expense.

  8. I worked at (once) legendary WBZ-TV in Boston. In 1994/95 they switched affiliations from NBC to CBS. At the same time lost pro football to (at the time) upstart FOX. To some extent the local affiliate still hasn’t recovered. We became “News 4 New England” and “CBS Boston” along the way. We periodically embraced and shunned our sister radio station WBZ. They have been rock solid through the years despite what TV did. We actually occupied the same news space and still do. Now TV is back to WBZ-TV online and on TV but it took 11 or 12 years to get there. In the meantime, the entire industry has transformed. I actually think the call letters are more important today than ever. Online entities that can spring up in one day need that link to credibility that call letters and newspaper names give them. In the end, call letters may be the only remnants left from a former media era.

  9. DW

    KSL-TV in Salt Lake City is an NBC affiliate. Has been since 1995. They were great to us NBC folks during the 2002 Winter Olympics.
    Infamous in some parts by not running Saturday Night Live. The station is owned by the Church of the Latter-day Saints, aka the Mormons.
    KSL-AM radio was a CBS Radio affiliate for many years. It’s now with ABC.
    KSL’s properties are different web animals, owing to their dominance in the market and local culture.

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