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Local TV Stations' Futures Light Up

 

By Cathy Corcoran

 

It wasn’t that long ago that local TV stations were moaning.

Younger audiences weren’t watching broadcast TV, viewers were cutting the cord to cable providers, and streamers were taking over the marketplace. But lately, the pessimism has turned to optimism. Stations that once just aired local newscasts at noon, 6 pm and 11 pm, are now delivering news 24/7, producing programming specifically for their digital brands, even operating their own streaming services. And they’re making money doing it.

“Television news is drastically different today from what it was even five years ago,” said ABC/Disney’s Jennifer Mitchell. “These days, we report, produce and edit the story on a multi-platform basis. We ask ourselves how the story will look on our web site, on our digital feeds, on social media, not just how it will look on the 6 o’clock newscast.”

Mitchell is senior VP, Content Development, ABC Owned TV Stations Group. She and her team are responsible for creating and executing multi-platform content and strategies across the group’s eight local brands and businesses. She is speaking in NATPE’s Wednesday workshop How TV Stations and Syndicators are Building Digital Content Brands in Glimmer, rooms 1/2, 4:30-5:15 pm.

A 20-year veteran of ABC, Mitchell said that, as the TV marketplace has changed, ABC has adapted quickly, re-thinking its workforce, growing its pool of content creators and helping them learn new skills. “We’ve developed an incredibly talented multi-skilled workforce,” she said. “They can all write, produce, shoot, and edit news stories. They’re all active on social media, too.”

Mitchell and her team are especially proud of Localish, a digital lifestyle show launched 16 months ago. The show features positive feel-good three-minute stories produced by each of the eight stations in the group.

A recent segment, produced by WABC-TV New York,features two sisters who found one another as adults when they were researching their family histories. Cecily White and Rosalie Gordon say they were thrilled when they got together, and, within a short time, they co-founded Brooklyn Nail Company, a salon that provides manicures, pedicures and cutting-edge nail art.

Audiences love feel-good stories that go beyond car crashes, house fires and traditional breaking news reports, Mitchell said. “We have a strong connection to our communities anyway, but Localish allows us to deepen those connections and focus on the amazing people who live and work in our areas.”

The ad-supported program releases new episodes every Thursday, and has become so popular that the group’s KABC-TV-Los Angeles airs a 30-minute version of Localish weekly on its linear TV lineup.

Over at Tegna Broadcasting, its digital businesses not only compliment its traditional on-air programming, they attract new viewers as well, said Chief Digital Officer Adam Ostrow. One of his most important tasks is hiring and retaining employees who know and understand digital platforms. A former editor-in-chief of online news/entertainment website Mashable, Ostrow will also speak at the Station Summit workshop on Wednesday.

Last year, Tegna, which operates broadcast stations and digital sites in 51 U.S. markets, created Vault Studios, an in-house production company that produces original podcasts in the true crime genre that are based on cases originally reported by its TV station reporters. One of its successful efforts is Bardstown, a podcast series that focuses on a series of five murders that occurred in Bardstown, a sleepy little town outside Louisville, KY.

Vault Studios created new content from the hours of investigative reporting generated by Tegna’s WHAS-TV Louisville news team. The program was distributed via Spotify, Apple, and other podcast services. “We had millions of Bardstown downloads,” Ostrow said. “Initially, the audience came from the Louisville area, but it soon spread across the U.S. Plans now call for expanding Bardstown (italicize on PDF) into a video series. Several other straight-to-video series are also in the works.

“Tegna has always been a big believer in local news and investigative reporting,” Ostrow said. “We’ve created a tremendous library of content that we can use to generate new programming.”  

Tegna developed a sales force, Premion, to handle its OTT advertising platform, and the company has made a significant commitment to investing in technology to power its new initiatives. Tegna One, a content management system, was created to power its in-house digital publishing. “It’s proprietary and quite innovative,” Ostrow said.

“Innovation is a mindset,” said Scott Erlich, VP, Emerging Platform Content, Sinclair Broadcast Group. “We believe it’s at the core of our business.” Sinclair is the second largest TV station operator in the U.S., operating 193 stations in more than 100 markets. 

In addition to websites and mobile apps, the company last year launched its own streaming service, Stirr, free ad-supported TV (FAST TV). It includes access to live news, sports and entertainment. Its most popular channel, Stirr City, includes local news on demand, local high school football games, and special events like the annual Martin Luther King Parade held each year in San Antonio. The parade was traditionally broadcast by Sinclair’s San Antonio stations, but is now available across the U.S. Other Stirr channels include Cheddar, Newsy, Comet, Fail Army, Pet Collective and more.

Sinclair is also an early member of the Newson app, which makes local newscasts from more than 250 participating stations available on smart phones and other devices. The app is especially attractive to cable cord-cutters who still want to watch local news. (Though ABC O&Os were founding members of Newson, Disney/ABC recently pulled its O&Os out of the project last year. Industry insiders speculate that Disney/ABC is preparing to launch its own local news app/service).

Station group executives are looking at a bright future. “The multicast business has become very vibrant,” Erlich said. “Opportunity is everywhere you look. As we used to say in my hockey-playing days, ‘We’re skating to where the puck is going.’”

ABC’s Jennifer Mitchell agrees. “Business is good and we’re incredibly optimistic about the future,” she said. “We have great brand integration across multiple platforms, and a solid monetization plan for our Localish brand.” The group’s diversified distribution strategy ensures that Localish is available not only on ABC’s own platforms, but also through partners Huff Post.com, Apple News, MSN.com, and others. The show is also available in taxis, and Uber and Lyft vehicles in 14 major U.S. cities.

“We’re experiencing tremendous change, but this is an industry that’s been undergoing change for years,” said Sinclair’s Erlich. “We’re delivering a huge selection of content to people everywhere and we’re going to continue to do that. No matter what happens in the future, that’s still going to be a relevant mission.”

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