Many TV stations have been experimenting with packaging their local news for OTT consumption. So far the results are underwhelming. My best advice: keep at it, but lower expectations.
OTT has emerged over the past decade or so as a parallel television universe, growing exponentially and sucking in viewers in ever-increasing numbers with a seemingly inexhaustible array of big-budget programming.
Suddenly, it seems to have reached a point where it may soon eclipse our familiar broadcasting/cable universe.
At the core of the OTT universe are Netflix, Amazon and Hulu, but orbiting around them are scores (hundreds?) of other compelling streaming options — everything from YouTube to MLB, from CBS All Access to HBO Go.
Right now, broadcasters are a small part of this universe. Network affiliates are now routinely included in the skinny bundles or virtual cable systems of DirecTV Now and others just as they are on actual cable and satellite systems.
Also, many TV stations have been experimenting with packaging their local news for OTT consumption, figuring that they can reach new, younger OTT audiences and pick up some extra ad revenue without incurring big new expenses. Sometime they mix in entertainment programming.
So far, these local forays into OTT have not amounted to much.
When I search for news channels on my preferred OTT platform Roku, I find the logos of many TV stations, but when I call them up, I see that many are limping along and others appeared to have been abandoned.
But there has been a recent resurgence of interest among broadcasters in local OTT.
Last week, CBS launched a local OTT channel in New York and it is planning to follow with similar ones in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston and Pittsburgh.
Last Thursday night at 9:39 p.m., I “tuned in” to CBS News New York to find WCBS weatherman Lonnie Quinn predicting rain for the Big Apple weekend. (I’m not sure, but it could have been the same 9 p.m. one-hour newscast CBS airs on its New York duopoly station, WLNY.)
We will be able to measure the success of the initiative by seeing how quickly CBS follows through with those planned launches in other markets next year.
Sinclair is also preparing to plunge deeply in local OTT next year under the umbrella of Stirr, a collection of mostly national OTT channels. The plan is for Sinclair stations in dozens of markets to produce local channels to complement the national ones.
I am aware that a few other station groups — Cox, Graham, Gray and Raycom — are also pumped about the prospects for local OTT. I’m sure there must be others.
Given the expansion of the OTT universe, broadcasters are smart to explore all opportunities to be a part of it. And I’m not the only one who thinks so.
The role of local broadcasters in OTT was one of the underlying themes at our NewsTECHForum conference in New York last week. Among the speakers was Frank Mungeam, a former Tegna digital executives now teaching at Arizona State.
“The default for viewers, when they come home in the evening, is watching OTT,” he said. “The biggest threat today is that the audience starts with Netflix; they aren’t in the live video space. So, it’s the oldest rule: you need to fish where the fish are.”
The idea that OTT is becoming the go-to medium when Americans plop down in front of their TVs at the end of the day was backed up another NewTECHForum speaker, TV consultant Andrew Finlayson of SmithGeiger.
According to a Finlayson, 53% of respondents to a consumer survey said they watched TV via OTT during primetime, a percentage point more than said they watched broadcasting/cable.
A one percentage difference doesn’t seem like much until you consider that 100% of primetime viewing was probably on broadcasting/cable 10 years ago.
What the SmithGeiger research is saying is that in the minds of viewers the barrier between the OTT and broadcasting/cable universes is rapidly disappearing just as it disappeared between broadcasting and cable over the course of the 1980s.
So, yes, it is smart for TV stations to “fish” in the OTT universe, but the question is with what. The natural answer for broadcasters is local news because that is what they do, but it’s far from a perfect one.
Think about it.
If local news channels are such a great idea, why haven’t more TV stations successfully done it before now on other media.
For the past 40 years, broadcasters have had the ability to produce news channels and distribute them on cable systems either by partnering with the cable operators or wresting a channel from them in retrans negotiations.
Yet, only a few seized the opportunity and even fewer made much of a mark with them. Sinclair’s WJLA 24/7 News in Washington (formerly NewsChannel 8) is among these rarities.
After broadcasters began switching from analog to digital, they were presented with another chance to offer local news channels via multicasting. Again, there were attempts, but little became of them.
In 2004, NBC’s O&Os and its affiliates launched local weather channels in their markets with the support of the NBC network. After four years, the venture was abandoned. The O&Os tried to carry on with NBC Nonstop, local news channels, but that too fizzled out.
The O&Os finally gave up on local news and converted the Nonstops to Cozi TV, one of many diginets laden with old TV shows. The closest it gets to local news now is Adam-12.
And for at least the last decade, stations have been loading up their websites with news clips and newscasts on-demand and some go so far as to stream newscasts and breaking news events live. But one gets the feeling that these efforts are worth barely more than their cost.
Given the history, it’s no wonder that when I asked NBC/Telemundo stations head Valari Staab about it at NewsTECHForum, she essentially shrugged her shoulders. If individual GMs want to give it a try, they may, she said, but they will be on their own. There is no group-level interest in it or support for it.
The best advice for broadcasters may be to keep at it, but to lower expectations. Develop a local OTT news product that capitalizes on the medium’s attributes — the ability to be live and on-demand at the same time, to reach viewers on multiple devices (TV sets, desktops and smartphones) and to keep in touch with younger viewers who are more prevalent in the OTT universe.
It’s unlikely local OTT is going to transform your business any more than websites, apps and social media did. But it all adds up.
Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or here.