Local TV Affiliates Need Partners as They Awaken to the Web

By: Steve Outing Today in Seattle, some 1,100 folks associated with the online newspaper industry are gathered in the Sheraton Hotel for the Interactive Newspapers conference. At Interactive Newspapers, you only occasionally run into someone of the broadcast persuasion, probably here looking to learn from what the newspaper industry has accomplished on the Web in the last 3 to 4 years. Although the national networks take the Web quite seriously, television professionals at the local TV affiliates level who are interested in the Web don't have an equivalent conference where like-minded broadcasters can share their experiences setting up TV Web sites. Indeed, the broadcast industry as a whole is a couple years behind newspapers in level of sophistication at using the Web.

According to Dan Naden, who has been tracking the U.S. broadcast industry's baby steps onto the Web for his online publication, the Antenna, executives at local affiliates are mostly waiting for someone to come up with a revenue model on the Web that works. There are precious few local TV stations that are doing much more than putting their toes in the water.

Part of the reason for TV stations' lateness in entering the Web game is that station managers don't feel threatened by the Internet to the extent that newspaper publishers do -- they haven't noticed the oncoming threat. Internet competitors' threats to newspaper classifieds have driven much of the major investment in the Web by the newspaper industry, but TV is, for the most part, waiting for others to prove that the Web presents profit opportunities.

Naden estimates that 60-65% of local TV stations in the U.S. have Web sites. Most of them offer little more than program guides, TV personality bios, and maybe some community information.

Of course, it's a greater challenge for a TV affiliate to create a compelling Web news service. Naden points out that copy composed for television news broadcasts is written for the TelePrompter, and is not really meant to be read directly by a reader; it's information for the ear, not the eye. Newspapers have a big advantage in being able to easily port over news content composed for print directly to a Web site. And TV stations have most of their valuable content in video form, which when ported to the Web presents serious bandwidth problems today.

The advent of broadband access will open up great opportunities for the TV industry to combine broadcast signal with the Web. Naden envisions the day when consumers will watch their TVs and flip back and forth between Web pages and TV images. When that day comes, TV executives need to be prepared.

Attempts to compete

It's unfair to characterize the entire television industry as being behind the curve, because there is some cutting edge Web work being done. Some of the most visible broadcast Web initiatives are being developed by the national TV networks, such as the CBS Network on the Web, which officially launched this week. The CBS Network concept creates a national Web site at CBS.com that highlights local TV affiliates, with Web users in an affiliate's geographic region being pointed to co-branded CBS-affiliate Web pages featuring a combination of local-market and national content. CBS has signed up 155 of its affiliate stations to be part of CBS Network on the Web.

Naden isn't terribly fond of the networks' Web models, because, he says, they play up the national network brand too much over the local affiliate's. Typically, local content for such Web networks is produced by an intern or promotion director, who rewrites copy from the newsroom. Of the national TV network Web model, he says, "It's really not a win-win. ... It's not something I'd recommend" to a local TV station.

What Naden does favor as a strategy is to create TV Web sites that play off the local brand -- ideally in partnership with other local media, especially newspapers. He points to the "ChannelX000.com" TV Web sites (Channel2000, Channel3000, etc.) operating at TV affiliates in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon, as the first examples of TV affiliates heading in the right direction when it comes to Web strategy.

(It's worth noting that Naden's publication, the Antenna, is owned by Internet Broadcasting System of Minneapolis, although he says that the online newsletter -- of which he is publisher and sole employee -- operates autonomously. IBS is in the business of helping TV stations set up profitable Web sites, and works with the established sites.)

Channel4000.com, the Web site of WCCO of Minneapolis, is the leading model for local TV Web sites -- and is apparently the first local TV site to claim profitability. Operating in the competitive Twin Cities market, Channel4000.com is up against two newspapers that take their online operations very seriously -- the Star Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer-Planet. It's generally acknowledged that Channel4000 is comparable in depth and quality to those sites.

WCCO has done exactly what Naden recommends. It has a new media department that works inside the station's newsroom, producing news for the Web throughout the day. It also recently partnered with Sun Newspapers, a local chain of community papers in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region. (IBS was the company that developed the Web sites for the papers. According to IBS president George Johnson, the Sun papers produce 1,500 Web pages per week.)

Naden says that it's important for TV stations to recognize that they don't have what it takes to produce certain elements of a strong Web site -- and go out and partner with those that do have them. In the case of WCCO, for instance, rather than try to create an entertainment service online from scratch, it created a deal with the Pioneer-Press in which it promotes that paper's JustGo online entertainment service (and thus gains some revenue).

Classifieds is another area that TV stations are not going to excel at on the Web, but that doesn't mean that television doesn't want a piece of the classifieds pie. WJZ-TV in Baltimore last year negotiated a deal with Classifieds2000, a Web-only classifieds company from California. Visitors to that TV station's Web site can go to a local classifieds area comprised of Baltimore-specific ads from the Classifieds2000 site, co-branded with the TV station's name.

Newspapers might avoid that kind of competition from their local television stations by doing co-branding or promotion deals with the TV outlets using the paper's online classifieds. Naden says it's unlikely that TV stations will ever try to enter the classifieds business by creating services from scratch.

Naden is seeing more and more newspapers getting interested in partnering with local TV affiliates on the Web. A few examples of such collaborations can be found, including the IBS television affiliate Web sites. KCBS in Los Angeles trades some content services with the Los Angeles Times, for example, where the TV station provides video news clips and weather information, and the Times provides business and entertainment news to KCBS as well as some promotion of KCBS.

The future is not likely to see the multiple competing local information services found on the Web in many major U.S. cities today, Naden believes. "I think there is room in most markets for more than one local information provider," he says, "but there won't be the glut" that's out there today of competing newspaper sites, TV sites, and online city guides.

The key for local television stations -- as they awake to the opportunities presented in the Internet environment -- will be partnerships that make up for their own shortcomings as they develop worthwhile Web services. The lesson for newspapers is that if they don't partner with their neighboring broadcast friends, they may soon be competing against alliances of local TV and other entities.


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This column is written by Steve Outing for Editor & Publisher Interactive. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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