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THE MEDIUM AFFECTS THE MESSAGE
In a world of spaceships, jungle heroes and great dancers, how does agriculture find a spot? Apparently, with a focus on consistent returns. The world of agriculture television has changed a lot in the past two decades. More and more it has become consolidated, just like the rest of agriculture, but for those who develop a large enough marketplace, there are positive ways for this medium to serve agricultural markets.

Tribune Entertainment, Chicago, produces such hit shows as "Andromeda," "BeastMaster," and "Soul Train," for continental markets. It also produces the "U.S. Farm Report." Mike Adinamis, executive producer, explains that the show has been a long-term and consistent producer for Tribune. "For twenty-eight years, the show has been a mainstay for Tribune Entertainment," he says. "It really sees the need to serve the farmer and his or her rural lifestyle."

Kevin Stewart, producer and host of "AgVision."
Agricultural shows are certainly affected by the farm economy, but most are reporting good continued support from sponsors and advertisers. The larger challenge, according to Kevin Stewart, producer and host of "AgVision," Canada's only national agricultural show, is consolidation. Fifteen years ago, many stations had local agricultural programming. This has fallen by the wayside as the proportion of the farm market in these locations has declined. "It's hard to create programming to serve just 3 percent of your market," Stewart says. Although a number of these programs still exist, many have moved to serving regional markets such as the "Georgia Farm Monitor" or the "Prairie Farm Report" in Canada. Several have also focused on national audiences.

SATELLITE DELIVERY

Cindi Berger, meteorologist, and Al Pell, anchor, pictured on the set of "AgDay Television."
Reaching farm audiences with national programming is actually becoming easier than ever before. Brian Conrady of Farm Journal Electronic Media, Lafayette, Ind., produces two shows, "AgDay," a news program on agriculture, and "WeekEnd MarketPlace," a commodities information show. One of their delivery systems for both shows is satellite. "We see this as an absolutely essential element of our distribution channel," he explains. With DIRECTV, his company can reach "a growing number of homes in rural America at the perfect time of day. Satellite television offers, without question, the greatest opportunity to grow our audiences in the years to come."

His counterparts agree. "U.S. Farm Report" airs on RFD-TV, a DBS channel that airs on EchoStar and DIRECTV - which combined will reach more than 30 million homes by the end of the year. Adinamis believes these kinds of technologies will mean the industry can better serve farmers and ranchers. Much of the technology seems to be shifting to small dish systems. Stewart reports that up to 70 percent of his audience in Canada use small dish satellite. Broadband systems are also being employed, although they have less penetration than the small dish systems.

Just the same, conventional broadcasting is still an important part of the delivery system for these media, and it isn't any less a challenge than before. "Bar none, the hardest job we have is to secure access to airwaves," says Stewart, whose team is continually making the case for the agricultural audience with national networks.

Photography by John Costello, Ad Alley
Broadcaster Max Armstrong interviews farmer David Beck in a JC Robinson test plot near Clarks, Neb.
With great backing from Tribune, Adinamis' show is aired on 209 stations in the United States and reaches a whopping 96 percent of U.S. TV households. Yet even he reports that the sales team is out continually pushing stations for decent time slots.

The issue of timing is a big question in broadcast. Often programmed on Sunday or Saturday mornings, agricultural TV shows are subject to assumptions that farmers are early risers. Depending on the sector, this may or may not be true. Stewart recalls that they have conducted more than 2,200 surveys on preferred time of day among his audience and reports he has had just about as many answers. That's why satellite systems with their time shift advantages of airing at different times in different time zones are helpful. Download systems are also an advantage.

Plus, farmers are willing to make the commitment to get the information off conventional networks. Kim McConnell, CEO of AdFarm, says their research indicates farmers will make an effort to catch ag specific programming or will tape the show. That's one of the reasons television remains a "very good buy," and is reasonably priced in many rural areas. As head of an ad agency, he observes that television is not an environment for all products, companies or situations, but "TV, when used properly, can elevate the presence of a company or product." The old adage "it must be good if it's good enough to be on TV" does still seem to influence farmers.

SHOW BUSINESS

Those who are most successful at national television programming recognize that first and foremost they are TV media. "This is show business," proclaims Stewart. "If you're going to operate in the highest profile media, it's got to look good." That's why "AgVision" is prepared by people who have produced the Olympics and the Stanley Cup. It's a commitment to meet the needs of audiences with not only farm stories but with the right quality of content.

Stewart is using this team and benchmarks against consumer television. To set best practices, he looked at shows like "60 Minutes" and "Dateline" that often handle complex topics. "They don't produce one program for people who know about the topic and another for those who don't," he observes. That is the standard he has tried to set for "AgVision." The show covers topics that are absolutely relevant to a farm audience, like the first farmer ever registered for ISO 14000 who happened to be based in Australia. Still, it is handled in a manner that is sufficiently engaging that a non-farmer could understand and be interested. "We stay away from the micro level and keep to the macro view."

There's no question these shows are aimed at the agricultural audience, but TV is a "spillover" medium that is also seen by millions of the non-farming public. "We believe TV is a good information vehicle in general, and we like to support it for the public benefits as well," says McConnell. Though this isn't the primary audience, all of the shows are cognizant of the fact that they are revealing the industry to consumers. Adinamis talks passionately about the extended reach of agriculture to investors in commodity markets, food processors, and restaurant trades. Their programming often reflects the business side of the agricultural marketplace and extends further into other areas.

At "AgDay," they even act as advocates for the industry. "First, we provide a daily dose of news, weather and market information to farmers and ranchers across the country. At the same time, we must appeal to a large consumer audience that knows little about life in the country. To do that, we must proactively serve as advocates for agriculture, bringing the story of this vast industry to communities large and small. Agriculture has a great story to tell - and it's our responsibility to make sure consumers get the message," Conrady says.

It is the lure of the medium, the power of these voices and the complexity of the industry that is making agricultural television programming succeed. Technology has facilitated the creation of national shows that have a large enough audience base to explore the topics of the industry in a way that makes the most of the medium and adapts to an evolving audience. For the ag sector, these shows provide both an information source and a public face. AM

Robynne Anderson is president of Issues Ink, Winnipeg, Manitoba, which publishes Germination, Pulse and CAAR Communicator.


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