Local Television and the Web: Little to Worry About

By: Steve Outing

A consulting job recently had me calling up local television stations in a major U.S. city to determine their level of activity online. Since the focus of my consulting business, and the most frequent topic of this column, is on print media ventures in cyberspace, this was one of the few chances I've had to speak with a number of television people about Internet opportunities. To quickly summarize what I learned, they "don't get it" yet.

Now, I don't want to over-generalize, and there are some local TV stations around the U.S. that are seriously committed to cyberspace ventures -- and that recognize the potential. But what I found in this U.S. city was a lack of commitment to online opportunities. For the most part, even those stations that did have their own Web sites viewed them primarily as marketing vehicles for their broadcast programming -- and nothing more.

At the stations with their own Web presence, the sites tended to be the project of one person on the station's staff, working with an outside Internet provider who hosts the site on its servers. My first clue that the stations didn't take cyberspace opportunities too seriously came with the telephone receptionists. Without exception, they didn't know that their stations had online services, nor whom I should contact.

I did find one station, an affiliate of the fledgling UPN network, whose Webmaster has great ambitions for leveraging the assets of the TV station in the online world. His primary goal is to create a slick Web site (Java enhanced) that offers fans of UPN's science fiction and children's TV shows links to the Web sites of those shows, as well as a locally focused place to interact, learn about the shows, send fan letters, etc. This particular station's parent company also owns a professional sports team and has the broadcast rights for a large university's sports events, so the Web site will play on those strengths as well. The site is likely in the future to become a place online where you can purchase sporting event tickets for those teams. Because this station does not have a news operation, it will not be entering the news business unless it joins forces with another news organization online.

At the local public television station, the program director dabbles with the station's promotional Web site, along with several other employees who help out in their spare time. There is no single person devoted to the Web site nor one who heads up the effort. Nevertheless, the program director is interested in cyberspace opportunities and sees value in expanding the Web site as a promotional tool for the station. In addition to a place online for program listings, the station might sell mugs, T-shirts and the like online to raise money. And the site will be linked to other public TV and radio stations' Web sites, as well as the national sites of PBS (the U.S. public television network) and NPR (National Public Radio).

Only one of the network TV affiliates in this city has a Web site, and the person in charge of that project says it is not viewed as a potential profit center. It exists, he says, to promote TV viewership -- and that's it. It's just another expense item on the marketing budget and the station at this time has no plans to view it as anything more. This site does include weather maps from the station online, which is a useful service and a potential advertising vehicle. And while this station does have a news operation, it currently is not working with the online project.

Compared to the newspaper industry, local television is obviously behind in exploring cyberspace opportunities. While there are many TV stations with Web sites, the majority of them are promotional tools for the broadcast product, and few of them have a strong news component. Most local TV broadcasters have limited staffs, so creating an online division is not something they take lightly. The TV stations I contacted were able to devote only 1 or 2 people to their Web projects, and even those may not work full time. Most rely on relationships with Internet providers to maintain and in some cases design their sites.

My experience indicates that newspapers operating online sites have little to fear, at least for now, from TV stations launching competing online news services. And the Internet access business, which an increasing number of newspapers are entering, is not seen by most TV executives as an interesting opportunity.

While local television is not much of a threat to newspapers online, it does present attractive alliance possibilities. Newspaper-sponsored Web services such as Boston.com and FYIowa have brought local TV affiliates into the online mix. Any newspaper operating an online service has much incentive for allying with a local TV station (or, following Boston.com's model, bringing them all online). In the city that I was studying, none of the local papers had yet established alliances with any of the TV stations.

A television partner can bring weather radar images, which are a nice online draw, as the Tampa Tribune found out; Doppler radar images from its TV partner of hurricane-prone Florida are a major attraction of its Tampa Bay Online service. Local TV stations also can offer traffic reports and breaking news headlines, adding a video component to the online experience that will be necessary if your site is to succeed.

In this era of media alliances, it is surprising that there aren't more newspaper-television partnerships in operation. But expect that to change.

Scottish paper provides kids' massacre link

David Mill of Mirror newspapers in the UK is sending out a request for online media worldwide to link to an appeal by the Daily Record in Glasgow in memory of the victims of this week's school massacre in Dunblane, Scotland. The appeal is to raise funds for the community of Dunblane in conjunction with the Victims of Crime Trust. The link to the fund-raising appeal is at http://www.record-mail.co.uk/rm/drsm/appeal.html.

The Daily Record site also contains some outstanding coverage of the tragedy. When a news event of such profound significance occurs, the Internet is proving to be a way not only for people thousands of miles away to access local, in-depth coverage of the event, but it also makes possible a worldwide response to terrible tragedy.

Contact: David Mill, dmill@record-mail.co.uk

Wall Street Journal Internet coverage from Europe

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal Web site has an interesting package of articles titled "Growing the Net in Europe." This is coverage not normally made available to a global audience; the articles are from the Convergence special section, which is published quarterly by the Wall Street Journal Europe (and does not appear in the U.S. print edition).

Contact: Neil Budde, budde@nrs.dowjones.com

American Reporter to remain independent

Joe Shea, editor and founder of The American Reporter, reports that the deal I wrote about earlier this week for AR to be purchased was shelved this week and the cyberspace news venture will remain independent.

Allow me to correct a couple errors, also. AR charges $500 per month to publishers for rights to republish any of its articles, not $100. Also, it is now published 6 days a week, up from 5.

And a quick update of AR's lawsuit against the Communications Decency Act. A hearing on the case is set before a three-judge panel in New York on April 3. Shea reports that despite the lack of public financial support coming to AR for the cause (which I mentioned), money is not being sought for legal fees at this time because the law firm handling the case is working pro bono.

Contact: Joe Shea, joeshea@netcom.com

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