NATPE 2020 | Sook Sees Plenty Of Promise For OTA, Nexstar
MIAMI BEACH — The head of the nation’s largest TV station group is highly bullish on NextGen TV, cautious about OTT and optimistic that broadcast’s over-the-air nature may be a key asset to cable-wary sports leagues.
Perry Sook, president, CEO and chairman of Nexstar Broadcast Group, said here Wednesday that when he hears commissioners or team owners grumbling, he also hears an opportunity.
“When an Adam Silver or a Mark Cuban says the reason our ratings are down in the NBA is because most of the games are on cable, I pay attention to something like that,” Sook said. “People look at the ability to reach the over-the-air audience … as being a net positive as they’re making decisions.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Sook also lauded NextGen TV technology as crucial for the industry to adopt and said OTT was a front on which to take careful, measured steps. He questioned the future of scripted entertainment on broadcast TV, and touted the size of Nexstar’s local news force and its new, three-hour News Now primetime broadcast as key assets toward winning viewers by playing to the company’s core strengths.
Sook said that one of his priorities in attending NATPE this year was to meet with other station group owners to speed up the transition to NextGen TV. “When you’ve got 197 TV stations you can get a pretty good start” on putting pressure on fellow groups to roll out the technology, he said.
“The biggest opportunity we have as an industry is the transition to ATSC 3.0,” he said, which can open up new possibilities for streaming, video or even as the wireless connector for the internet of things. “If we don’t make this transition, we’re going to be an inferior distribution platform with inferior quality to even the cable universe.”
What he doesn’t want, he said, is the NFL asking why its games look so much better on ESPN in HD and 4K than they do on broadcast. “So there’s almost a defensive need to make this transition,” he said, in addition to making a more efficient use of the spectrum.
“This is the single biggest thing a local television group can do to control its destiny and to prosper and not just survive,” Sook said.
Sook was far more equivocal about OTT’s benefits for broadcasters.
While he’s a fan of OTT providers “as long as people are in the pay TV ecosystem,” he’s far less enamored of “asking some people to pay for content and then giving it away to other people.”
Nexstar will be taking “a far more measured approach to OTT,” though it has experimented with a direct-to-consumer model at its San Francisco station, where its KRONOn OTT app puts exclusive original content behind a paywall.
“I don’t know if I’d call it a runaway success at this point,” Sook said, thought the app did pick up between 20,000 and 30,000 new users when it dropped its paywall for the Napa Valley fires. That prompted him to consider looking at an ad-supported model in some markets down the road.
Sook also sees the current boom of new streaming services coming into the market as constricting in the next three to five years.
“Half a dozen all doing the same thing, all at the same price point — that screams to me consolidation,” he said. “We’re going to be talking about a much smaller universe.”
That said, he sees streaming as having catalyzed an arms race in scripted entertainment that may push broadcasters more to the sidelines. Scripted shows are increasingly commoditized, he said, and that “makes it harder to stand out, a more expensive business and perhaps therefore a less attractive business to be in.”
Rather, he sees live news, sports, awards shows and competition shows as increasingly the province of broadcast, while scripted entertainment falls more into the streamers’ domain.
Local’s Enduring Value
Sook said that Nexstar’s biggest competitive advantage remains its local news and sales forces, whose numbers are the industry’s largest. Nexstar has 5,400 journalists in 110 newsrooms across the country, along with 20 state capital bureaus.
Nexstar also has 1,800 salespeople calling on SMBs across 63% of the country. “I can think of a lot of FANG companies who would want that kind of exposure to local businesses,” Sook said.
“With the diminution of local newspapers and radio stations being all run out of one office somewhere, the opportunity is your local content and your local commerce,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities for a company of our size and scale.”
Another of those opportunities is Nexstar’s soon-to-launch primetime News Nation, which will air at 8-11 p.m. ET on its wholly-owned cable network, WGN America.
Sook sees the move as “simply counterprogramming” to all of the entertainment, sports or opinion shows otherwise running in primetime. The Chicago-based newscast will be committed to avoiding any whiff of bias, he said, and will be hiring a journalism professor or rhetorician “to make sure that unconscious bias doesn’t seep in to our writing.”
News Nation will draw on Nexstar’s local reporting corps around the country for a competitive advantage out of the gate, Sook said.
“If an unfortunate shooting happens in El Paso or a tornado in Dayton, we are at the scene before anyone else has chartered an airplane to fly their correspondents into town,” he said. “And we have context — we know the neighborhood. Those are the things that set us apart.”
A related app for the newscast will be updated 24 hours a day, he said.
On the app front, Sook said that he tells all of his news directors that when they plan content across all of Nexstar’s platforms, to think of their programming as a business requiring exclusive content for each device if they expect people to pay for them or advertise on them.
“That business is not going to be successful if you sell everybody the same thing,” he said.
Given his appearance at NATPE, Sook also had some advice for how syndication producers should approach what is now the country’s largest buyer of syndicated off-net programming. He said he put EVP Sean Compton in charge of programming acquisition for the entire company — its 197 stations, cable network and diginets — for a reason, and syndicators would do well to consider that.
“It’s more than just saying I need to renew Ellen in 12 markets,” he said. “People who approach us in a more holistic manner will likely be more successful.”
Nexstar will be strategic buyers on the whole, Sook said.
“We’ll have fewer holes than we did a few years ago,” he said, “but it’s pretty valuable real estate when you consider our group reaches almost two-thirds of the country.”