Broadcast leaders who’ve come up through their companies’ digital ranks have a different vantage point than their C-suite peers. Leaders from Raycom, E.W. Scripps, ABC Owned Television Stations are Capitol Broadcasting say their experience with digital media risks, failures and the process of constant iteration has shaped their approach to the broadcast helm for the better.
LAS VEGAS — Running the digital arm of a broadcaster is not for the faint of heart, but for those who’ve passed through that gauntlet to helm their companies, the experience has shaped their mentality about the entire enterprise.
That begins with those leaders’ experience with marketplace risk, said Adam Symson, president-CEO of the E.W. Scripps Co. at the NAB Show on Monday.
“Broadcasting has been traditionally a very protected business — protected by regulation and economically protected because not everybody could have a television station in a market,” he said. “That protection allowed us to develop our business in a certain way, historically.”
Running a digital business, on the other hand, “you’re forced to deal with a truly capitalistic, competitive environment,” he said.
And that environment has plenty of slings and arrows.
“I have scars,” said Pat LaPlatney, CEO of Raycom Media, a 30-plus year broadcast veteran who came to the C-suite via his company’s digital platform.
“It’s gone from a rounding error to a roughly $80 million-$90 million business,” he said.
Getting it there at Raycom and elsewhere involved fighting battles on multiple fronts. One was pushing through massive internal cultural change.
“Trying to get people from the bottom to the top to start thinking in this way is a real challenge,” said James Goodmon, president-CEO of Capitol Broadcasting.
Another front was squaring off against much better-funded competitors with deeper R&D budgets, all the while keeping pace with dramatically changing audience habits and new platform developments.
Those dynamics force a kind of siege mentality in digital-turned-broadcast leaders.
“You get very comfortable living in this steady state of iteration,” said Wendy McMahon, president of ABC Owned Television Stations Group. “Now I’d encourage all of us to think like startups.”
But thinking that way compels swallowing some hard market realities, chiefly that the economics of the past are going to stay there and are never coming back. A new, more chaotic environment has unfurled in their place.
All broadcasters are competing for time, attention, ad revenue and consumer revenue, Symson said, and many of the businesses that are going to eat into that are venture capital-backed.
“They’re never going to make a dollar and they’re going to go out of business,” he said. “When they go out of business, a hundred more will start up behind them, and nevertheless they will take away time that our consumers spend with us and consumer revenue.”
That means broadcasters have to play by different rules than they’ve had to play by in the past, and new industry leaders need to recognize that reality.
They also need to juggle of range of new dynamics and platforms that the digital age has ushered in — OTT, VOD, programmatic, voice and social media among them — and determine where and how deeply to lay down bets.
On the OTT front, for instance, “it’s a food fight right now” between numerous different players trying to carve out a space, LaPlatney said, and the best tactic is to bet on all of them for now and let the market sort it out.
On the social media side, these former digital chiefs have experience shaping a distributed content strategy that’s helping guide them through difficult shoals as consumers increasingly turn to those platforms as their go-to news sources.
“The platforms — Facebook, Twitter and Google — in many respects helped accelerate our digital business,” McMahon said. But she noted that broadcasters need to constantly tow a careful line between keeping a robust presence there and a focus on their owned and operated online platforms simultaneously.
“Nobody owes us anything,” Symson said, but digital leaders understand how social media see the value that broadcasters’ content has brought to their platforms, and broadcasters can work with them to push for concessions accordingly.
“We need to ensure where we are putting our content we are compensated for it appropriately,” he said.
Digital leadership experience has also helped hone a product awareness that comes in useful as television looks to engage younger audiences.
Noting that local TV’s news product still looks remarkably similar to how it did 50 years ago, Symson said the digital media perspective helps him better understand that younger consumers don’t come from that same world of limited choice.
“It’s incumbent upon us if we want to perpetuate our businesses to create content that appeals to multiple generations,” he said.
These leaders nevertheless concede they’ve made plenty of mistakes in trying to do so. And they admit not all has gone well in their efforts to build digital businesses that amount to more than pennies stacked against broadcast dollars.
Facing an industry-wide average of about 5% of revenue coming from digital, LaPlatney said, “As an industry, I would say we’re behind where we should be and it probably reflects a lack of investment.”
But local TV is still way better off then its primary local competition — newspapers — and sees its localism as a multiplatform advantage.
“We have incredibly strong, trusted local brands,” McMahon said. Those brands have room to grow beyond the news into other spaces like lifestyle, she noted. “We know that interest in local is massive and growing and is largely driven by mobile.”
All of which makes a digital veteran ideally placed to lead local broadcast into its next iterations.
Symson said they’re up for the challenge.
“We’re willing to take a punch to the gut and stand right back up and continue to lead the businesses,” he said.
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