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Digital

Digital

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

When it came to moving online, local TV news has historically looked tardy and vulnerable. But that may be changing.

Over the last year initiatives by local TV news stations were less about convergence with newspapers and more about offerings through newer technologies. Local TV content can now be accessed as podcasts, on cell phones, on outdoor screens and streamed over the Internet.

One of the biggest growth areas has been in local stations’ Web sites. All the Big Four networks have worked on their local station sites, and the results have been encouraging.

The CBS Television group, for example, has overhauled its local Web sites over the past year, increasing the amount of available video streams fourfold. That has resulted in a huge increase in online ad revenues.1

The Fox Television group rolled out re-designed local Web sites in January 2007. The network undertook a yearlong project to centralize the sites — they have a similar look and centralized technical operations, and all are seen as stand-alone businesses for the group. They offer local information and community forums, in addition to local news.2

A survey released by Ball State University’s Bob Papper for the RTNDA in May 2006 suggests that a Web-based component is now a norm for local TV stations, though what it consists of may vary greatly from site to site.

According to the survey almost all news directors say their local TV stations now have Web sites, and 98% of those sites include local news (showing that local news continues to be a critical component of local television on any platform).

On average, about three people in the newsroom staff are dedicated solely to working on the Web site, up from about one person the previous year. And news directors find they are increasingly dividing staff time between the two entities — on an average, they said 34.4% of their newsroom staff helps with the Web site, up from 32.5% the year before.

Stations that have a large Web staff (according to the survey, ABC affiliates had larger Web staffs than other affiliates) tend also to have their news directors in charge of the sites. The percentage of news directors who say they are in charge of content on their Web sites has increased from 15.6% in 2004 to 20.3% in 2005.

What are the effects of a local Web presence?

One effect, various data suggest, is some positive impact on the bottom line.

Revenues

According to RTNDA the survey, the percentage of news directors who said their local TV Web sites were making a profit rose from 15% in 2004 to 24% in 2005 — and if you look at profits by market size, every single market group went up as well.

What’s more, news directors reporting a loss and those who reported breaking even fell from the previous year. (But it’s also worth noting that half the news directors surveyed were not sure how well their station Web sites were doing.)

Local Television Web sites
2005

Making Profit Breaking Even Showing a Loss Don’t Know
All Television
24%
12.2%
13%
50.8%
Markets 1-25
35.9
5.1
12.8
46.2
Markets 26-50
30
8
6
56
Markets 51-100
24.6
15.4
13.8
46.2
Markets 101-150
17.4
11.6
21.7
49.3
Markets 151+
15.4
20.5
5.1
59

Source: Bob Papper, “TV Web sites Helping the Bottom Line,” RTNDA Communicator, May 2006
Note: Based on survey responses of news directors

Another research group, Borrell Associates Inc., which measures local online advertising, found that local TV broadcasters lead the way when it comes to online ad revenues — the figure is projected to be $7.7 billion in 2007.3

But as broadcast television groups expand their digital properties, the question of revenue sharing and the relationship with their local affiliates is something to consider.

In September 2006, ABC cut a deal with its affiliates to stream some prime-time shows, including ABC News videos, on local Web sites. The local affiliates will be able to carry clips from ABC’s World News and Good Morning America on their station Web sites, and eventually even add local content. In exchange, the affiliates will promote the ABC streams both on the air and on their respective Web sites.

That was a compromise reached by the two sides in response to an earlier decision by ABC to stream its content free on its Web site the day after its initial broadcast. Affiliate stations weren’t happy – if viewers could watch ABC programming without having to tune into their local stations, they worried about the impact the move would have on their revenues. They argued that since they help publicize the programming, they should get some share of the revenue that it generates on other platforms.

Fox Television also faced similar concerns when it wanted to move into new media; it eventually made an agreement in April 2006 to share earnings with its local affiliates. Their deal allows affiliates to get an (not made public) portion of additional revenues made from reruns on other platforms, for up to a year after they air the program.4

CBS has come up with another novel digital arrangement. In October 2006, it hooked up with Yahoo Inc. to make local news content from its 16 stations that run local news available to stream on the Yahoo Web site. While exact financial details were not available, Yahoo is expected to share in the revenue from advertising the video clips.5

Such revenue-sharing agreements seem to be the future for big television groups as they try out new delivery platforms without diminishing their television viewership or straining ties with their local affiliates.

Audience

How about audience? To what degree are they using these sites, and is there an impact on television viewership? One survey suggests that consumers are getting more local news on the Internet, but at least so far, are not using it to replace local TV newscasts. A study released in July 2006, conducted by the market research firm Crawford Johnson & Northcott, found that 75% of Internet users watch a local newscast at least twice a week. More than half said they tried to watch it daily.6

The relationship was reciprocal: 68% of the consumers surveyed said they followed up on local newscasts by going to the station Web site. The study also found that TV stations had an edge over print in driving consumers to their sites.

News executives at all those stations have also seen that giving viewers local news when they want it helps build brand loyalty — and that translates into ratings. Their hypothesis is that when consumers switch on their TV they will turn to the same station they were going to online — and it seems to be a valid theory. According to Bill Fee, general manager of WCPO-TV in Cincinnati, Ohio, “We’ve been doing it for 10 years, and our ratings have gone up, not down. If you give consumers the choice… it gives you the chance to grow.”

Web sites can apparently help local TV stations not just by providing local news on demand, but by generating a sense of personal interaction. General manager Robert Klingle of WHAS-TV in Louisville, Kentucky says stations look to their Web sites to build on relationships with their viewers. That can be done through membership options, e-mail alerts and viewer comment/feedback sections, among other things. Fox-owned KDFW-TV in Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas, not only has staff blogs that viewers can comment on, but also hosts blogs for its viewers in a community section on its Web site.7

As a part of the report his year, the Project analyzed 38 different news Web sites —everything from online-only sites to blogs to sites rooted in traditional media like newspapers and cable—in September 2006 and in February 2007. That included two from local TV news, KING5.com, in Seattle, and CBS11tv.com, the local CBS affiliate in Dallas-Forth Worth (please see the broader discussion of the Typology breakdown).

KING 5 (www.king5.com)

The Web site of Seattle’s Belo-owned local television station, KING 5, stands apart from the average local-TV Web site. Its content, unlike many other local TV sites, is highly local. There is weather, a link to a free classified section, a box, updated roughly every hour, that spotlights developing local stories or other advisories, followed by three top stories that are presented as a package with headline, brief story synopsis, picture and at least one video clip.

But that layout is not a must. KING5.com earned its highest marks for being customizable. A button at the top of the page, “Customize KING5.com” allows users to “choose your news,” by constructing an individual news page with headlines they choose form KING5.com as well as other sites. The site also allows users to do advanced searches to find what they want on the site. And if you’d rather not come to the site, it will come to you via RSS, Podcast or even your mobile phone (a feature available on only on a handful of sites examined).

A major site redesign at the start of 2007 gave even more weight to the user. In October 2006, there was no way for the user to add their own voice—no way to comment or rate a story or even access a “most emailed” list. By February 2007, visitors who become “members” (something they are prompted to do after a few clicks on the site) are encouraged to contribute to the site’s content. One of the headers along the top of the page along with “news,” “weather” and “sports” is a link called “interact,” and invites users to contribute photographs, engage in forums to discuss news, politics, sports and the outdoors, comment on King 5 blog entries, and contribute to the local calendar of events. With no way to directly email station staff, have a live discussion, rate a story, or see a list of the most emailed or linked to repots, there is still some room to grow. Overall, it falls in the mid-low level here for participation. But this is a site that is focusing more than many others on users.

The redesigned KING 5 site also increased its use of multimedia forms for its content, putting it in the mid-high category here. Just over half of the content on the homepage is text-based. The rest features video news clips, slide shows and interactive graphics like a two-way calendar of local events.

KING 5 does not place nearly as much emphasis as some other sites on its own branded material or content control. It fell in the high mid-range of sties studied. There is a place, called “Investigators, designated to its news team’s original reporting” But these reports, primarily local in focus, appear only periodically: on January 30, 2007, the top 10 stories listed on the Investigator page were dated January 23, 2007 back to November 21, 2006. Over all, the primary source of content, for both video and narrative stories, is the Associated Press. KING 5 reporters have bylines for about half of the local news content, with the AP and other contributing sources (such as KGW.com) filling in the rest.

The site scored at the low mid level for depth. That, given the paucity of this characteristic in the sites studied, still ranks it better than many others. The site updates its content every hour, but again it is primarily with wire copy that does not offer many links either inside or along-side the story to provide readers with additional information.

Finally, for now anyway, visitors can use the site with little demanded of them. Registration is optional (though encouraged), all content is free including the archives and there are on an average of just five ads on the page.

CBS11tv (www.cbs11tv.com)

The Web site of the local CBS affiliate in Dallas-Forth Worth also stood out among local TV sites for the its web offerings. CBS11tv.com placed highest emphasis on customization and on offering content in different media forms. It also scored in the mid high range for economics, or the level of developing revenue streams.

The site earned lower marks for the depth of its offering and for giving users a chance to participate in the content.

The homepage’s upper banner features local weather, traffic and a search tool, which is unusual, because most sites feature a banner advertisement in that prime homepage property. Below the banner, the Web site usually calls attention to its lead story with a large headline and picture, often packaged with a video or another multimedia component. Following the lead story are 10 links to other top stories, a featured slide show, most popular videos, and a poll of some sort. The right- and left-hand columns of the homepage feature categories of information (such as “local news,” “politics,” and “health”), more videos, local services like yellow pages, stock quotes and more.

The site scored in the mid-high range in multimedia. The bulk of the content is a mix of narrative, still photos and videos (roughly 90%) with some use of slide shows, polls and interactive graphics. And, while just a small portion of the content comes in these last three forms, the fact that the site uses them at all increases its rank here.

The site has chosen a mix of -options for users to customize the content, ultimately scoring it in the mid-high level. The home page comes as is, but with an advanced search option for archived stories. And, it has leapt over podcasts (not offering them at all) and gone directly to an option for mobile delivery.

One thing it seems to have almost no interest in at the moment is offering participation options to the user. There are no user forums, comments or polls. There is no way to email the correspondent of a report, nor are there lists of the most viewed or emailed stories. There is a section at the bottom of the site that asks readers, “Got an Idea for a Story?” The link, however, only prompts an e-mail window.

The site also does less than others, to promote its own brand. A slightly obscured category in the left-hand column is a link called “The Investigators,” which sends a user to CBS11 original reporting, special reports and consumer news. The work of three reporters is highlighted here, along with a picture. Outside of the Investigators section, much of the content on the site comes from the Associated Press. That is true even for some local news stories, though to a lesser extent than for national and international stories.

One of the more unusual content destinations on the site is a section called “Inspiring People,” which presents a gallery of videos about acts of kindness and heroism. The site also offers three lifestyle sections (“beauty & style,” “family,” and “new baby”) aimed at niche audiences, primarily girls and young women.

Most content on the site is free, though users do need to pay for material that is more than a month old. Their biggest hope for revenue, though, seems to come in the advertising realm. We found an average of 15 ads on the homepage, the bulk of which were not tied to any kind of self-promotion.

Local TV Election News: Finding an Online Niche

Elections proved to be not just a cash cow for local TV (see Economics) but also a chance for it to make the most of online platforms.

Many of the biggest television groups, such as NBC and CBS, made concentrated efforts to beef up their local sites with election coverage — something they were only experimenting with in previous elections.

And their efforts seemed well rewarded. According to Internet Broadcasting, which manages many of the broadcast network Web sites, local TV station Web sites drew viewers in record numbers on Election Day, November 7, 2006.

The firm released traffic data for 79 TV station Web sites the day after the elections, and claimed that a record 3.5 million unique visitors turned to local sites to view election results. That is a huge spike in the amount of traffic those sites usually get — increases ranging from 50% to 150%.8

One of the ways that stations used their Web sites was to offer live video streams of candidate speeches, many in their entirety, which would have been much too long for any half-hour on-air broadcast. As Lane Beauchamp, managing editor of the CBS TV Stations Digital Media Group, put it, the “nearly limitless inventory of the Web” made it possible to carry nearly all speeches online.

Many of the sites also offered other voter information, such as guides to all local and state races — sometimes running into thousands of candidates — and to local ballot measures.

Some CBS stations also streamed exclusive content on their Web sites, or “webcasts.” CBS-owned KCNC-TV in Denver offered a webcast for four hours on Election Day, in the afternoon (before its evening newscast on TV). In Boston, CBS-owned WBZ TV had post-election analysis and debate on its Web site. After the station’s on-air coverage ended, viewers were urged to go the Web site, where the lead anchor and political analysts carried on their analysis.

As Steve Schwaid, vice president of news and programming for the NBC-owned Television Stations Group, put it, “Online is truly becoming a world of its own.” And there was a series of innovative measures to make the Web site election coverage stand out on its own.

In Pennsylvania, the NBC affiliate WGAL-TV, apart from posting text and video of its on-air stories, had a number of informative features. An “ad-watch” feature used evidence to debunk claims made by candidates and let viewers come to their own conclusions. The site’s most popular offering turned out to be a “how to” feature that taught voters about the new electronic voting machines. That video feature alone was streamed more than 10,000 times in the three days leading up to the elections.9 Hearst-Argyle’s staff used their local-station Web sites to solicit voter questions for their on-air debates and analysis. WRC-TV, the NBC owned and operated station in Washington D.C., tried to get viewers to interact with the site. The editors put up a “video box,” which let users upload their own videos and comments about the election.

The growth in traffic to local Web sites is ample proof for local TV stations that the Web, if used creatively, can be an important tool to for retaining audience. What is not so clear is the extent to which the sites can offer a much-desired additional revenue stream