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SlimeWatch, Part 3: What Local Stations Can Learn from NPR’s New Website

6a00d83451b26169e201053659b16a970c-800wiNPR.org doesn’t exactly grab you by the shoulders and scream “cutting edge!” At least, not yet. But give it time.

One thing that is clear is this:  the thinking behind the radio giant’s redesign is advanced, and should be studied by every local television station manager and web team–at least the ones that intend to survive as employees of viable, profitable businesses.

For NPR, the new thinking goes like this:  kinda, sorta, start not really focusing so much on the “R” in NPR: “This is an organization that’s in transformation into becoming a fully functional news content organization, not just a radio company,” said NPR’s Vivian Schiller in an interview with Newsweek.  Schiller’s the force behind one of the most powerful news sites on Earth–nytimes.com–but she left the Times six months ago to join NPR and get the old school org all multiplatformy and stuff.

As Newsweek’s Johnnie Roberts wrote, “For Schiller, that means building on NPR’s reputation as a broadcaster of national and international news, by extending its reach into local news. She plans on relying more on local member stations to fill what she sees as a “scary” void in local coverage as hometown daily newspapers fold.”

Supporting local coverage is obviously something most localnewsers can get behind.  Unless, of course, that means a network, like NPR, or NBC for that matter, coming in an bypassing its local station to do the local work itself. And NPR’s new model, as Schiller’s old shop The New York Times noted, “would make it easier than ever to find programming from local stations, (it) will also make it much more convenient for listeners to bypass local stations, if they choose.”

NBCChicago:  No Worries for NBC-Owned WMAQ.  But Boston, Tampa, Vegas?

NBCChicago: No Worries for NBC-Owned WMAQ. But Boston, Tampa, Vegas?

This is exactly the threat, as I’ve argued, that NBC’s “Locals Only” effort poses to NBC affiliates who don’t choose to accept NBC’s terms to do business on a local level.  GE’s already laid the groundwork by buying up domains from coast to coast that would allow the network to instantly be in the local online news business (as “NBC Boston,” for example) and bypass entirely another “NBC” entity in the same city. Welcome to the Wild West, folks, where allegiances may shift depending on who’s got better firepower, stronger horses, and cash.

Speaking specifically of NPR’s aggressive move into multi-platform news growth online, Jake Shapiro, the executive director of Public Radio Exchange, a group that supports local radio stations, told the Times, “That’s the risk. It increases the pressure for stations to offer compelling and distinct programming.”

As Schiller told the Times, NPR’s revamped website isn’t about offering National Public Radio a presence online, and certainly it’s not an effort to drive ears to NPR stations.  The new model reverses all of that, taking NPR’s website “from being a companion to radio to being a news destination in its own right,” Ms. Schiller said.

The Web's News Giants Smell Money in Your Backyard.  You Ready to Compete?

The Web's News Giants Smell Money in Your Backyard. You Ready to Compete?

With TV networks contributing their content to Hulu and ending the once ironclad arrangement that you see NBC shows on NBC stations, the “bypass local stations but own local advertising” model is no hypothetical threat.  It’s time for smart station managers and news directors to look at their own websites and ask if they can compete against their own network–if it ever came to that.

Can you?  Is your site that good?  Is it tied to your TV product or growing in creative ways away from the TV newscast and terrestrial station?  Is your local online reporting going to be better than NBC’s or CBS’s or Huffington Post’s?

You may not be thinking this way.  But trust me.  They are.

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SlimeWatch, Part 2: NBC Loves Local. NBC Affiliates? Not So Much.

Jeff Zucker:  Planning to Go Local With You or Without You?

Jeff Zucker: Planning to Go Local With You or Without You?

Lukewarm is really never a good thing.

Not for soup, not for bathwater, and definitely not as an answer when someone’s asked to evaluate the earnings potential of the business you work in. And yet, for us, right now, that’s what we’ve got.  The headline on televisionbroadcast.com:  Analyst is Lukewarm on the Future of Local News.

Rich Greenfield of Pali Capital, a financial services firm that advises clients worldwide on markets and business sectors, thinks Local TV’s not as bad off as radio and newspapers, but it’s not quite healthy, either:  “We believe the local TV business is in secular decline,” Greenfield writes on his blog.  “While revenues/profits may bounce whenever the economy recovers, we have a hard time believing that local news, weather, traffic and sports at 7 a.m./5 p.m./ 6 p.m./11 p.m. can sustain viewership levels, and in turn, advertiser interest over the next several years.”

I’m not a financial analyst, Wall Street guru, or Financial Times subscriber.  But I do know this: if your advertiser-supported business cannot “sustain advertiser interest,” you have a serious problem.  And, as I’ve been arguing here, I believe Local TV has an Everything-Must-Change problem.  The thing is, I don’t sense that most companies that own television stations have much interest in changing.

Or maybe they simply don’t know how to change.  The problem is, other companies are already working on that, and they will not share the fruits of their efforts with local stations when their new model becomes profitable.  And NBC may be one of those companies.  (Don’t feel relieved just yet, NBC affiliates, you might not be invited to the peacock’s party–in your own town)

Here’s NBC’s affiliate relations chief, John Eck, talking last month to TVNewsday about building deeper, stronger ties between the network and its affiliates:  “We invited all affiliates — whether our agreement is expiring this year or several years down the road — to talk about how we could modify the existing arrangements so that we could participate on more platforms together.”

The Bird:  Bullish on Local, Just Not Necessarily Local Stations

The Bird: Bullish on Local, Just Not Necessarily Local Stations

And then there was the big, bold, rah-rah smack on the affiliates’ lips from NBCU CEO Jeff Zucker at the NBC affiliates’ meeting in May, as quoted by Broadcasting & Cable:  “Let me set the record straight once and for all,” said Zucker. “Standing here on the stage of one of the most famous broadcast studios in the world–created for radio, rebuilt over the years for television, then color TV, then digital broadcasting–let me be as clear as I can be: We are not abandoning the business of broadcast network television. We are not going direct to cable. We are renewing affiliation agreements. And we are going to be in business together for a long, long time.”

A long, long time, eh?  I guess it depends on what your definition of being in “business together” means.  To NBC, it means getting a taste of affiliates cable and satellite retransmission deals, and in exchange, affiliates get a piece of NBC’s local online news and entertainment businesses.

Uh, did you say NBC’s local online businesses?

Oh yeah, you didn’t hear?  The peacock’s got big plans for local media, whether they own stations in local markets or not.  For NBC affiliates, the network’s offering a “gold” package, wherein the station and NBC cooperate on a local website, among other platforms, in exchange for a renewed and reinvigorated relationship in this troubled times.  “We’d be willing to go long, long for a gold package,” John Eck told TVNewsday.  What if stations don’t want to share the local web pie?  “Your affiliation arrangement is going to be much shorter term,” said Eck.

NBC station owners and managers have obvious reservations about the NBC offer.  NBC Affiliates Board Chair Mike Fiorile (COO of Dispatch Broadcast Group) talked about the “gold” plan with TVNewsday’s Harry Jessell:

“Do you want to be partners with NBC on local Web sites? For instance, they would want you to be NBCindianapolis.com.

Frankly, I don’t have a lot of interest in that. I’m already NBC Indianapolis. If someone does a search for NBC Indianapolis, I’d sooner they come to a site that I own as opposed to a site that I’m a partner with somebody else on.

Well, this could be a second site for you because NBC is proposing lifestyle sites as opposed to the news site you’re now doing.

Yes, but I’d rather have all the NBC Indianapolis traffic come to visit me.”

We're NBC in This Town, Thanks Very Much

We're NBC in This Town, Thanks Very Much

All well and good.  It’s completely understandable that the guy whose station, WTHR, has historically been NBC in Indianapolis, would like his website to be the source for news and information and all things Indy and NBC.

Well, here’s the interesting thing about NBCIndianapolis.  It already exists, and WTHR doesn’t own it.  GE does.  In fact, a quick survey of URL listings reveals that in market after market, NBC’s been on a domain-buying spree in cities where there are no NBC O&Os.

In Boston, where Sunbeam’s NBC station, WHDH has had a bumpy partnership with the network–most recently threatening not to air Jay Leno’s new primetime show–NBC’s ready to roll into the market with or without Ed Ansin.  NBCBoston.com is owned by GE.  Whether WHDH considers the domain simply a placeholder purchased by a network just in case station and affiliate ever wanted to team up on a site, or rather a threat to compete directly with WHDH’s whdh.com for local clicks–and dollars–is not something the station wanted to talk about.  “We are aware of NBC local,” WHDH’s Chris Weyland said in an email.  “We have no comment.”

Perhaps NBC’s just thinking ahead and buying up domains before some joker can get to them first, and has no plans for using NBCBoston.com to compete against its own NBC station.  But keep this in mind:  NBC’s business model has already moved beyond call letters.

NBCNewYork:  Peacock Yes, Station Call Letters No

NBCNewYork: Peacock Yes, Station Call Letters No

Jeff Zucker explained his thinking clearly in a quote on lostremote: “WNBC.com or WNBC4.com is an extension of the television station, it’s not a real scaled game. We don’t want to play just in that game. We want to play in the entire New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or whatever city you want to call it online media space and we can’t do that by just limiting ourselves to the call letters of our traditional analog TV station.”

“Or whatever city you want to call it.”  If you work at an NBC affiliate, punch in NBC and your city.  Is the domain taken?  Is that why NBC’s smiling even as the over-the-air business for stations fades away?

I’m just asking.  NBC, by the way, did not respond to requests for comment.

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