Stafford “Doc” Williamson, Guest Author
So, you want to get on radio, or television shows to publicize your latest book, video, song, or hot new “rope-on-a-string” invention. Okay, I’ve learned a few things over the years, and having had a little success recently in hitting some top national shows with a very modest publicity budget (money well spent on ads in Steve Harrison’s the Radio and Television Interview Report publicity magazine), let me share with you a few tips and insights. You may have to adapt them to your particular product, personality or situation, but I trust that you will find some of this useful.
Broadcasters have, for the past half century and more, relied upon statistics to set their advertising rates. Unlike the internet, where your server can literally count every “hit” (request) from every visitor, there is no direct way to measure every viewer/listener to a radio or television show, so they have resorted to that “black art” called statistics.
Three times a year in North America a few select companies that specialize in this, survey the public about their viewing and listening habits. These are called the “ratings periods”, sometimes known as “heart attack season” in the entertainment industry, as well as “musical chairs” since so many jobs end up depending on the outcome of the ratings.
These rating periods generally correspond to the traditional landmarks in the television broadcasting “season” and are November, February and May. A period of lesser importance because of the shifting and staggering of start times of new programs in the fall is the September Sweeps.
Too many shows with many millions of dollars, potentially even billions of dollars, at stake were prematurely falling victim to transitory factors like what big news stories might be happening on any given Tuesday or Thursday before loyal viewing patterns were established, so the networks and their program suppliers reduced their do or die decisions based on early audience statistics that used to be crucial to programming decisions following the September measurements. The “important” ones are still November, February and May.
The characteristics of these sweeps are slightly different. The term “sweeps” is short for “sweepstakes”, which should give you some idea of how random the outcomes appear to at least some observers. November and February Sweeps tend to get peppered with special programming.
Thanksgiving Day parades, Sports playoffs (and Superbowl), and spectacular or epic movies and mini-series. May, in contrast, tends to be “season finale season” as annual program cycles come to an end, and try to offer cliffhanger plots or some other devices to pique interest in the shows that one will have to eagerly await until the series returns in the fall.
All of which may seem like it has very little to do with getting publicity at those times. Actually this is an important clue as to how to go about seeking publicity at those times, or even, why to avoid competing head-to-head with others who might be willing to do battle with the heavyweights, when you are not quite ready for that level of competition.
Advising you to “retreat” may not seem like very constructive advice, but this may be a case of better to live to fight another day. I am reminded of some friends of my parents whose daughter was a figure skater. These proud parents thought she had national competitive potential. If they have persuaded rich Uncle Morris to stake millions of dollars on putting her on national television in a live, televised special while Uncle Morris advertised his car dealerships in 7 cities, it almost certainly would have bankrupted Uncle Morris and been the last time this girl put on her skates. She really wasn’t ready for prime time. The sad result would have been that she would have missed all those years she has since enjoyed teaching and coaching other young figure skaters.
So my first piece of advice is, don’t expect to get on during Sweeps periods, and if you do, be sure you are ready to deliver the goods for a great show for the producers and hosts who have put their faith in you. They really don’t care if you’ve invented “the pocket fisherman” that will sell 7 million worldwide if all you can do is pull it out of your pocket, cast a line across the studio and say, “Isn’t that great?”
But if you can come on the show with a hand-painted, porcelain doll face with handmade Victorian period costume and explain how every piece of lace was crocheted, the bloomers were authentic to the period and show your genuine passion for the trials and tribulations of miniaturizing lingerie in the styles that inspired Victoria’s Secret, you might give them just the kind of show that would liven up Seattle’s afternoon on another dull, drizzling February day.
That too is another important point about all public appearances in the media. They don’t care if you don’t sell a single pair of handmade dolly bloomers for a 25 cent profit. They want a show that they can sell! One that is entertaining to their audience. They don’t care about you or your product or service.
Those traits make them very tough customers to sell. They need a reason to have you on. So here are a few clues to what producers are looking for during ratings periods.
The perpetual winners in the wars for viewer attention during ratings periods are: puppies, babies, babies with puppies, death and the supernatural, Nazis, money, and sex. In that order. If you want to get the attention of the producers during sweeps periods you had better have something ripped from TOMORROW’s headlines, or one of the forgoing topics as the “hook” into your story, your segment, your pitch.
Okay, admittedly there are limits to how outrageously you can pile it on. “Nazi puppies and their hidden Swiss bank accounts,” just might stretch your credibility beyond redemption.
I remember sitting with some (Canadian) “emmy nominated” (they actually have another name in Canada, but roughly equivalent) producers on awards night. They held great hopes because they felt that they had done some of the best work of their lives in a documentary on death and dying. The competing film on Nazis won. Then to add to their pain, the documentary on sex won in a different category.
So, for example, say your field is separation anxiety for college students and their families. A couple of ways to bring in these perpetually dominant sweeps week themes might be either to pitch pets (puppies as the top of the hierarchy of pets, of course) for college kids to adjust to loneliness after moving out of first year dormitory life, or parents starting fostering babies and the dangers for all concerned if they are really just trying to compensate for that “empty nest” hole in their hearts because junior is off at college.
Note too, that these themes have a negative slant. That doesn’t mean your point of view or position has to be negative, but the “hook” value often works best when it plays upon some sense of concern, fear or foreboding. By all means tell people about how to avoid the pitfalls of your topic, but don’t be afraid of a negative catch phrase of soundbyte.
The old adage that “no news is good news” is also interpreted by the news and information peddlers in today’s media as “good news is no news.” Be careful not to be seen as “no news” if you can avoid that perception.
So, what are the best strategies for dealing with this most volatile of audience periods, the February, May and November sweeps? First, avoid them until you have had some practice in dealing with the media. You don’t want to “fail” when it is most important to the shows. Second, if you are ready, give them plenty of notice in advance.
Make initial contact the month before sweeps begin with the basic idea. Third, follow up. Make an effort to contact those outlets that didn’t respond to your initial pitch early in the ratings period to see if you can help them with last minute openings later in the period. Make sure they know you are available on short notice if they need someone.
Ask them what they “need”, and try to refine or re-work your pitch to suit their needs, the next time. Do not switch the pitch in mid-call. You will just sound desperate. Stay confident that the uniqueness of you and your expertise or product will shine through eventually, and don’t be discouraged if at first you don’t make a massive breakthrough.
Even if you appear once on Good Morning America, or Coast-to-Coast; you may not become an instant celebrity with untold wealth rolling in. But it you persist, with confidence that your eventual outcome will be worthwhile, you can succeed. You can have the success you are looking for. Just don’t forget to enjoy the journey as much as the destination, because most of life is the journey and any destination is just a stopping-off place along the way.
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Copyright © 2014 Stafford “Doc” Williamson. Reprinted with permission. Stafford “Doc” Williamson is an author and consultant. His writing ranges from self-illustrated children’s books to theories about sub-atomic structure, and comedy. He first appeared on national television at the age of 7, and has been employed in almost countless jobs in the entertainment and many other industries for nearly 50 years. Recent appearances on regional and national media have garnered strong interest as he promotes his books. www.Facebook.com/stafford.doc.williamson
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