NAB Preview: Traffic and Billing Systems Remain the Profitability Workhorse

By Debra Kaufman

Traffic and billing systems may not be as glamorous as graphics, but for regional sports networks, TV stations, and TV networks, they remain the best hope for maximizing profits and streamlining operations.

At the NAB Show, major providers of traffic, billing and automation systems, WideOrbit, Harris Corp., Broadview Software, VCI Solutions and others, will be touting their latest refinements to already-sophisticated solutions. What they all have in common is the effort to tighten integration between the functionalities.

“Integration is key,” says WideOrbit CEO/founder Eric Mathewson. “It’s very hard to integrate products from disparate companies because the architectures and database fields are different. That’s why building a native application within the same company that has the same or complementary architecture and database structure is critical to being able to have an integrated system work well.”

WideOrbit, which counts 1,300 broadcasters using its system, will be launching WO Sales at the show. “Everyone is always focused on how to reduce expenses, but at this NAB it’s particularly important,” says CEO/founder Eric Mathewson. “We’ve also focused on how to grow revenue and properly price inventory in a down ad economy.”

WO Sales — which is natively integrated with its core traffic application — is composed of three modules: CRM (customer relationship management), Sales Proposer and Price Revenue Optimization.

“These products allow salespeople to be significantly more efficient so they spend time selling rather than processing orders,” says Mathewson. The CRM application tracks contacts, advertisers, agencies, behavior, verbal and written communication and provides a sales funnel.

“That allows your managers to get a better view as to when orders will be landing at your stations or networks,” he says. “Accordingly, sales managers can price inventory and optimize pending orders better.”

The Sales Proposer module is an “avail” generator that creates an RFP for an advertiser or agency based on Nielsen data, and a schedule that will be presented by that station or network.

The third module, Price Revenue Optimization, which will be released later this year, calculates the pressure of pending orders on existing inventory and optimizes for what the best price should be for that inventory. “You only know that based on modeling the behavior of each one of your advertisers,” Mathewson says.

Broadview Software, whose clients include PBS as well as Canadian and U.S. stations, will be showing improvements to the user interface of its sales analysis tool, says founding partner/president Michael Atkin.

“Sales analysis tools are data-mining tools,” he says. “We’ve put tremendous effort into improving those tools because that’s core to getting new business, especially in this economic climate.”

Also as a reflection of the cost-conscious times, says Atkin, Broadview is deploying less expensive hardware. The company also uses an open-source database, which means the cost of licensing it is zero. Maintenance is also a low-cost item. “Broadview, once installed requires zero support from IT,” says Atkin. “The product is self-maintaining.”

Cutting training costs is another strategy. “If we improve our documentation and training guides and use the Web for training, it saves a few percentage points here and there,” he says.

“I’m against not going on-site at all, because this is a complex business problem and many customers are migrating from much older systems. If people aren’t properly trained, we’re not setting the customer up for success. We streamline how to help them, to minimize on-site time, but we haven’t taken it to zero.”

Although the improvements are minor, they add up, says Atkin. Clients are getting “upwards of a 30 percent savings over last year.”

“If we improve the product to take 20 percent less time to do daily operations, then we’ve improved [the station’s] experience with the product and given them more leverage within their environment as well,” he says. “It’s an overall incremental way to improve overall efficiency.”

Harris Corp. will be introducing Live Environment/Live Updates, which enables rapid changes to brand and copy.

“Ad spending has gotten more reactionary than before, so traditional media has to react faster too,” says Ed Adams, Harris vice president and general manager of North American media. “Changing brands, changing the actual copy has become a labor-intensive challenge for our media companies.”

Adams also notes that the version 7.3 release enables regional shifts without having to re-enter data.

To squeeze out extra seconds in the day, Harris is launching Material ID Verification, which verifies the actual length of a program or commercial.

“Most commercials are 30-seconds long,” Adams says. “But sometimes they’re 28:30 or 17 seconds. If the commercial is 26-seconds, that gives us 4 seconds that can ripple down and might give you 15 seconds or more within the daypart. It’s a technical approach — and a better way — to not wasting those seconds.”

A third improvement is a multi-level contract approval process, designed to give the client greater control as contracts move through the system.

“One of the biggest requests we get is to consolidate all our orders and invoices,” says Adams. “This allows for multiple contracts to merge and generate one single contract, with any number of different brands, products, salespeople or media to be entered into that particular deal.”

“Whether it’s traditional broadcast regional network, Internet or that mobile channel you just developed, you now have a back-office operation to sell it,” he says. “I’ve just delivered five media on one contract.”

VCI Solutions will launch Velocity, a real-time software solution that manages all sales, traffic and automation. This end-to-end system, VCI says, gives station executives better control over every facet of the business operation and provides integration of all of the back-office functionalities.

“Leveraging a single management system for sales, traffic and automation provides numerous benefits beyond traditional ROI, such as best practices workflow, consolidated reporting and cross-training,” says President-CEO Sarah Foss.

She notes the “imperative” for broadcasters and other media companies to increase revenue through new sources and streamline operations to reduce costs, especially in today’s more difficult economy. In addition to superior integration of all the functionalities, an end-to-end system also simplifies training, also reducing costs and increasing efficiencies, she adds.

NAB 2009 will also highlight an impending merger between SintecMedia and Pilat Media.

SintecMedia will be at the show demonstrating its OnAir system with a new feature to handle VOD and other advanced services. The merged company, which will retain both company names, will service a roster of 80 broadcasters and media companies.

The merger is another reflection of the times. “If you look at the economy, our clients are changing their business models fast,” says Harris’ Adams. So, evidently, are the companies that provide them with the traffic, billing and automation software that keeps broadcast and cable stations profitability.”