Over the last month or so, something unusual happened. I frequently get suggestions from readers regarding topics for future posts. But, this time three people who I cannot imagine know each other and who live in different parts of the U.S., all suggested that I write about traffic managers at TV and radio stations, and cable interconnects. The more that I thought about it, the more I thought a story was there. And, when I put the topic out to some of my panel members, the response was amazing. Several had, unbeknownst to me, started out in traffic and had some strong opinions.
The core issue from all three who requested a post was that the traffic function is vital for all forms of TV and radio. It is a thankless job, low paid, and the only time anyone gets any recognition is when something does not air properly and the finger pointing goes right to the hapless traffic person or team.
My panel members had a lot to say and here are comments from three of them:
“….I agree wholeheartedly on the value of a good traffic person. Especially here in cableville, they are more important than ever and their roles increasingly complex. When I did it (20 years ago), the goal was simply to accommodate the spots sold. When we were tight, there was stress; but other times the job was a breeze.”
“Today, the stress is compounded tenfold by the sheer volume of inventory being juggled. Computers do aid the process but no traffic system is intuitive enough to deal with all the asterisks we place on each buy. This guy is an annual. That one paid a premium. Another buys volume. A fourth is a make good spot from last week. This one we owe rating points.”
“And this could be happening on 50+ networks, across 5/10/25 cable zones. It is the real world incarnation of the plate-spinner from the old Ed Sullivan show.”
Everyone commented that salespeople think that their job has concluded when the order is written. Another cable exec expounded on that by saying “I think that cable still has somewhat of a do whatever you can to get the business mentality. This often times leaves the traffic department to deal with all kinds of added value issues and special requests. I think that the other factor that comes into play is that cable is still not always easy for agencies to purchase. When they do, there are often times many hoops to jump through to make the billing work. This usually becomes a traffic nightmare.”
A local broadcaster writes “traffic is a dumping ground. We totally rely on them and rarely say thank you. If I send candy or flowers to the traffic people after a particularly stressful stint, my colleagues laugh and say why bother? My manager never includes them in group luncheons or gives them tickets to concerts or ballgames which some of them would dearly love. I do what I can personally but the message from on high is that they are expendable. It is so sad.”
Over the years, I visited hundreds of TV stations. Only about 10% would take me down to the basement to meet the traffic folks. They were all pleasant and lit up like Christmas trees if you expressed any appreciation. One manager told a lady that I knew a lot about baseball cards. She told me that she had been trying for years to get a card for her father’s hero, a journeyman who was not Hall of Fame material. When I got back home, I went to a card shop and for the princely sum of 35 cents, picked up three Topps cards of the player in question and mailed them to the Midwestern traffic lady. You would think that I had sent her bars of gold bullion. Our service from then on was extraordinary. I did not do anything of note but show her a mild kindness.
When creative was late, I would sent flowers to the traffic person who had to stay late due to our lack of professionalism. And, sometimes that generousity had enormous consequences. Back in the 1980’s, my agency was a serious player in the arcane world of regional network television. We often aired different copy in different regions and sometimes cut in a different commercial in several markets over the national spot. It required a lot of detail and perfect execution at the network end. At the end of a negotiation in New York, I asked if I could go downstairs and meet the cut-in crew. The salesman looked at me as if I were insane but the sales director smiled and nodded and personally escorted me to the technical area and introduced me to the team. I simply thanked them for their help and the youngest, Lou, asked what accounts that I handled.
When I told him that one of them was Klondike ice cream bars, his eyes lit up and he told me that he loved them. Reaching in to my briefcase, I gave each member a coupon good for a free six serving package of Klondikes. Sounds hokey, but remember all they received from clients was complaints.
A week later prior to a fall holiday weekend, I was trying to finish up some work at 6:25 pm so I would not have to come in over the weekend. The phone rang. It was young Lou from the cut-in crew. “Don, we must be the last two people working in broadcast in America”. I laughed and had to agree. Lou went on, “copy did not arrive for our Northeast advertiser in Monday Night Football. If you can give me an isskey code (commercial number), I will put Klondike in as no charge unit.”
Clearly, I had the number and we received a commercial in 25% of the U.S. with a street value in those days of $52,500 and all because I gave the crew the smallest bit of attention. Needless to say, they got all the free ice cream bars that they could eat after that!
Traffic people deserve our consideration and respect. As we move toward more :05’s and :03’s and more cable channels, there job will get even trickier. Catch them doing something right and salespeople, please give them the direction and follow-up which they must have to do their jobs right.
If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org