Q&A with AFN executives Larry Sichter and Jef Reilly
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Larry Sichter, American Forces Network affiliate relations chief, and Jef Reilly, director of American Forces Radio, sat down for an interview with Stars and Stripes last week in AFN Europe’s studio headquarters at Coleman Barracks in Mannheim, Germany, following a live call-in show. They were visiting from AFN’s broadcast center in Riverside, Calif.
Here are some of the questions they answered:
Q: How does AFN determine if anyone is actually watching its programs? For instance, it’s running a show called “A Double Shot of Love.” Do you have an idea if people are tuning in? Or is a decision made to run a program and run it until the end of the series, no matter what?
A (Sichter): We target our programming at certain demographics. Tia Tequila and “Double Shot of Love” runs on AFN Extra and that is a channel targeted to the 18-to-24-year-old demographic. It’s a very popular property. We know with a test audience of 300 million Americans that a lot of people are watching. We get feedback that people like the show. People don’t write in a lot of times to tell us they like it. The silence also has a great measurability for us. We know that if people aren’t complaining about it, they’re enjoying it. We’re confident that our audience is no different from the audience in the States. If this program is highly rated with 18 to 24-year-olds in the States, it’s going to be highly rated with ours.
Q: How do you pick your reality programming? Is it based on Nielsen ratings?
A (Sichter): Absolutely. Nielsen ratings are the measure we use. What a test audience. If a show is rating highly, we’re going to try and pick it up. The writers’ strike was the start of the switch to reality programming. The writers weren’t there, the dramas weren’t being produced; the comedy shows weren’t being produced. Reality shows took over and they took off. It’s an extremely cheap way for networks to put programming on the air and it’s very popular with the audience. You look at the top 10 programs — there are a lot of reality shows in there. “Dancing with the Stars” is huge. “American Idol” is huge. “Survivor” is huge. We’re here to reflect American television. We’re not making editorial censoring decisions as to what we’re going to put on. We want our overseas viewers to have the same choices they would have from the major network sources that they would get back in the States. So if reality is popular in the States, it’s going to be popular on AFN.
Q: Do you also use Nielsen ratings to bring in cable shows like those that are running on HBO, and can you acquire those shows?
A (Sichter): Yes, we can. A lot of the HBO content is edgy. The highest we go is the TV14 in terms of ratings. Material that’s rated a TVM or TVR, we can’t put that on AFN right now. We have TV14 movies on, and I think “Family Guy” and some other shows that may be TV14, but we stay away from some of the more edgy material because of our audience.
Q: But why not just show those late at night?
A (Sichter): We are reflecting the American broadcast standard for an over-the- air experience in the States, so we’re going to stay away from those edgier cable shows that go beyond a TV14. We have something that we call network broadcast standards. That’s basically what we adhere to on AFN; the same standards that NBC, ABC and CBS use to broadcast shows over the air in the States, that’s the standard AFN adheres to.
Q: Any chance of getting even more History Channel and A&E programming?
A (Sichter): It’s ratings. We’re taking the hottest properties from those channels but AFN is all about attracting the largest audience we can at any given time slot. We’re no different than NBC, CBS or ABC. We’re not selling product. We’re selling ideas. It’s those ideas that fill those commercial breaks, and by attracting people into the tent, by getting as many people as we can to watch, we’re guaranteeing those idea spots that we make are seen and heard and hopefully that message gets out.
Q: Any why target programming to the 18 to 24 year-old range? Is that the biggest segment of the population?
A (Sichter): No, it’s the audience that doesn’t watch that much media. The 18-to 24- year- old male traditionally watches less television than anybody else. Older people watch more television. We’re trying to attract the 18 to 24 year old by showing programs that they will find interesting, then we can get them with the command information that we need to put out, all those messages that combatant commanders feel are important for the troops. So by putting on NFL, or NCAA men’s basketball or Tia Tequila or “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart or “Family Guy” or UFC or International Fighting Championship, those are all programs that that demographic is going to tune in for.
(Reilly): And they’re younger. They don’t know a lot of the military information that they need to know, because it’s a foreign organization for a lot of the troops that come over here for the first time.
(Sichter): This gets off a track a little bit, but I lived over here for 9 years. While we were here, the Bosnia war was going on. There was an airman who was shot down. (The military) was able to recover him. What he told us after that experience was ‘I knew how to behave because of the code of conduct spots that I had seen on AFN.”