NewsTECHForum | Local OTT Connects With Viewers

OTT executives from CBS and Sinclair are finding local content — and breaking news — has been winning over viewers on their streaming services. L-r: NBC’s Saleem Malkana, Sinclair’s Scott Ehrlich, CBS’s Adam Wiener, Fox’s Steve Chung and TownNews’s Susan Bell. (Photo: Wendy Moger-Bross)

NEW YORK — Sinclair Broadcast Group has come to a key insight a year after launching STIRR, a free, ad-supported national OTT streaming service combining content from a host of national linear services, on-demand programming and Sinclair’s stations.

“We confirmed what we’d hoped to confirm, which is that people love local,” said Soctt Ehrlich, the company’s VP of emerging platform content, at TVNewsCheck’s NewsTECHForum here on Tuesday.

In July, six months after its launch, STIRR had garnered one million app downloads. Ehrlich said STIRR City, which streams local content into the homes of consumers in their particular markets, “is still far and away the most-viewed channel” out of the 80 or so the service offers.

“The second thing that we learned is TV is still TV,” Ehrlich said. “The stations we’ve set up as OTT stations behave very much like our stations on traditional TV. If you want somebody to stay an extra half hour after the news, put on Roseanne. It still works. Put up an episode of Family Feud, even if it’s 30 years old, it still works.”

The reason: People still “gravitate toward the things that feel like recognizable television programs, [with] local news being sort of the top of that mountain,” Ehrlich said. “We’ve been very gratified that our strategy, which was local-first for OTT, so far is panning out.”

Other members of the panel, “OTT News: Content, Technology and Monetization Strategies,” moderated by TVNewsCheck Editor Michael Depp, agreed with Ehrlich’s take on the enduring vitality of local TV, even as the industry continues to make new technological breakthroughs.


Susan Bell, senior product manager for Blox OTT at TownNews, a company that helps local media organizations integrate digital services, said that since her company began experimenting with OTT offerings some eight or nine years ago, there have been “some great successes and some crashes.” However, “hyper-local information, where people feel like they’re getting more than just [what’s] on their broadcast channel,” can pave the way for OTT viability.

“Even if it’s fireside chats, a little bit more after an interview, those types of specific things on OTT, which are a little bit harder for newsrooms to produce, [are] necessary for the success of OTT,” Bell said. “People who are not willing to do that see failures.”

More traditional, linear broadcasting continues to retain advertising dollars and, thus, the lion’s share of investment. But that’s not stopping media corporations from exploring new avenues, even after some early hiccups. Adjustments and reevaluations will continue to be made along the way as well.

“Live on OTT has not made the headlines as the VOD experiences have, with their deep libraries,” said Steve Chung, Fox Television Stations’ chief digital officer, when asked what his company is up to in OTT. He indicated Fox is proceeding into the OTT landscape with great deliberation, but with good reason.

“When the Web came, we sort of said: ‘Well, here’s what we do on TV; let’s cut it up for the computer or the mobile phone, and, really, we’re still there,” Chung said. “We haven’t [really] made digital-native content just for digital. Now we have another massive shift onto OTT, and I hope we don’t squander this opportunity to create something original and new that leverages the power of the platform that is now available to us.”

NBC, on the other hand, has already jumped into the OTT fray with NBC News Now, which launched earlier this year.

“We’ve seen great traction with users across multiple platforms,” said Saleem Malkana, head of product at NBC News Digital. “This has been a great opportunity to understand what’s important to [viewers], where they want to engage, where they want to consume news, and taking that customer feedback and data points from them and think about our strategy in 2020,” as the election season swings into full gear.

The company is still trying to figure out what separates OTT content from other digital content, though.

“For News Now, especially, there’s a certain voice and a visual language that comes with that, as a visual brand where we think it feels more real and vivid to users, it feels more kind of connected to the consumer, as opposed to [what’s produced] in a broadcast studio, which feels a little more sterile,” Malkana said.

CBS is currently launching OTT in every market in which it operates O&Os.

“We’ve been systematically going through all of those,” said Adam Wiener, CBS Local Digital Media EVP and GM. That includes New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, serving the Bay Area, and, most recently, Minneapolis, serving all of Minnesota.

“Each one is its own unique snowflake,” Wiener said. “Each install at every station is a little custom; we’re learning sort of trial by fire. The learnings that we’re getting every time, we’re able to apply every time.”

CBS expects to have OTT in all its markets by the end of 2Q 2020, and Weiner said, so far, audiences have responded to the company’s promise to deliver local news, especially breaking news.

“We see the spikes happen as even mild [news events] happen, like in regard to weather,” Wiener said.

One way that companies can figure out what ultimately will be sustainable in OTT is by maximizing revenue — something they have not achieved quite yet. The added revenue will help create more opportunities to explore and innovate.

Ehrlich observed that, during stretches reserved for commercial breaks on linear channels, many OTT stations still show a “We’ll be right back” type of graphic message. “As long as we keep seeing that on OTT streams, that’s money we’re leaking,” he said.

Watch the full video of the session here.

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