Dead at five! Obituaries move to TV, as stations find revenue in the recession

With local TV stations scrambling as advertising dwindles, it's prompting some to examine a money stream traditionally relegated to newspapers: obituaries. WNEM-TV, a Saginaw, Michigan, CBS affiliate owned by Meredith Corp. (MDP), may be the first TV station in the U.S. to air obituaries -- an idea it came up with this year when several local papers including The Flint Journal cut their frequency to three days a week. That cut-back worried funeral directors trying to relay information about services to residents, says Jeff Guilbert, general sales manager of WNEM.

A large newspaper's obituary fees can reach $1,000 for a notice, according to Advertising Age. But for just $100, families can buy into a two-minute segment about their loved ones on WNEM, which includes an obituary on ObitMichigan.com and televised information about the funeral home, Guilbert says.
"We do a five-second opening, saying, 'Here are today's death notices'," Guilbert says. "It has a nice background, and it's a very respectful way to commemorate those who passed. Then four names pop up on the screen, and every eight seconds, another four names come up until the two minutes are over."

The station has aired more than 700 obituaries since it began doing so in August, and Guilbert projects that local obituaries may be "the largest local client on-air" within two years. But for now, it's a new, untested revenue stream. TV advertising slumped 10 percent in the first six months of the year, according to TNS Media Intelligence. And auto manufacturers, a large part of Michigan's economy, slashed ad spending by 22 percent -- the second-biggest drop, after financial services, among 10 categories tracked by TNS.

"Right now it happens to work out well with a down-market," Guilbert says. "Michigan has been hit hard by the recession, and the entire state is looking at our product."

Stations in Detroit, Lansing, and other Michigan cities are considering licensing WNEM's program, which includes proprietary software, Guilbert says, adding that Meredith's WSFB-TV in Hartford, Connecticut, will also roll out the program. But it's not clear how much revenue obituaries represent, says Mort Goldstrom, VP of advertising at the Newspaper Association of America. Goldstrom estimates that obituaries represent between 1 percent and 5 percent of newspapers' classified revenue. Last year, the NAA says, classified sales for newspapers declined 30 percent, to $9.98 billion.

While WNEM's program has strong local interest, Goldstrom says, he feels it's unlikely to become a million-dollar category for TV stations. And there's an ''ick" factor: "It seems a little morbid to have a weekly show of who died this week," Goldstrom says. But WNEM hasn't heard any viewer complaints, Guibert says; indeed, if volume picks up, the station may devote half an hour to obituaries.

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