Talking TV: Laura Ling On Building A Very Local Streamer From Scratch
Hearst Television’s Very Local streaming service launched in Sept. 2021, but it has already produced over 500 original episodes across a raft of genres — destination shows, contests, docuseries and true crime among them.
The trick has been shooting fast and on a lean budget, tapping local talent from non-TV media — think podcasters and social media influencers — as presenters to give its shows a fresh, and avowedly local, voice.
Laura Ling, a veteran documentarian, is Very Local’s VP of programming, and her programming decisions have driven the service’s fast growth and unique brand feel. In this Talking TV conversation, one that any broadcaster looking to diversify its local content slate should lean into, Ling explains how Very Local arrived at its identity and the prolific programming strategy that’s giving local content a national network-level feel and accessibility.
Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.
Michael Depp: If you don’t know Very Local, it’s a streaming app or a channel, if you like, from Hearst Television, and within there’s a series of lifestyle programs focusing on travel, food, there are some game shows, documentaries and true crime thrown in there. The shows are locally oriented, but they have the veneer of national programs, which in effect, they actually are.
I’m Michael Depp, the editor of TVNewsCheck. This is Talking TV, our weekly video podcast. Today, Laura Ling is here, and she’s an experienced documentarian and the VP of Very Local at Hearst. She’s the filter through which all of these shows are coming through to streaming, and we’ll be talking about her programing objectives and building a brand, a voice and a look for Very Local. We’ll be right back with that conversation.
Welcome, Laura Ling.
Laura Ling: Hi, Michael. Nice to see you.
Very nice to see you. Been a long time coming to this conversation. I’m very happy to have you here. Laura, people may be thinking that your name is familiar, but maybe they can’t place why, and this goes back to your time at Current TV and something that happened to you in North Korea. You’ve written a book about this experience, and I would be remiss if I didn’t at least just touch on it, mention it. Can you remind people of the outline of what happened?
Sure. Well, in 2009, I was working for Current TV at the time. That was the cable channel that was co-founded by former Vice President Al Gore. I was head of their news and documentary division, and I was actually working on a project as a correspondent, in the border region of China and North Korea, working on a story about the trafficking of North Korean women into China. You know, I don’t have to go through the whole thing, I think people may remember, from news headlines, but I found myself arrested along that border while we were reporting there, and so suddenly, I was no longer reporting on this issue, I had become the story. I spent nearly five months in captivity in North Korea before being granted a pardon and returning back to the U.S., thankfully.
That is an extraordinary experience, which, of course, you have written a book about so people can read it. But of course, today we are talking about something very different, which is your role, at Hearst as the VP of Very Local. Now, Very Local is a very unusual kind of creature in television. I think it launched in late 2021 as Hearst’s first big move into streaming. Would you describe the essence of… I mean, would we call it an app, a channel? What is the nomenclature that we should even use?
Sure. It’s a streaming service. You can download it for free on any of your devices — Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire. We are also on mobile, so you can download it on your phone and just like you would watch Netflix or Hulu, etc., you can watch Very Local, but it is free, and it allows access to our award-winning local newscast across all of our Hearst markets, 26 markets across the U.S. and original programing.
And Michael, just to— you asked me about my experience in North Korea. One of the things that when I got back from North Korea, I was very changed, as you can imagine, and I told myself that I really wanted to make sure that I spent my time working on projects that were meaningful, and I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to do that in my career. And when Very Local, this opportunity came about. I was thrilled because I think this truly is a meaningful project where we can broaden our scope and provide local newscasts to a larger audience in the streaming space, as well as original programing that really speaks to the power of community. We’re really trying to celebrate these community stories, these heroes in our communities and also create deeper connections between communities. So, I feel incredibly lucky to be working on this project.
Let’s talk about the programing here. A lot of it falls into a few different distinct buckets. You’ve got travel and destination shows like Ed and Day in the Burgh, which is Pittsburgh, shows about Milwaukee, Baltimore, Boston, Albuquerque. There are some food shows, some game shows, some documentary series, a bit of true crime. Why did you stake out the particular territory that you did for these original shows?
Sure. Well, there was extensive research done, before Very Local launched, asking viewers in our markets what they were interested in seeing in addition to their local news. And what came back was an appetite for stories about their community, but like places they could go, hidden gems, great restaurants, things that they could do on a budget, where they could find some outdoor adventure.
And so, we tapped into that, but I think that we’re doing it in a way that utilizes really great storytelling so that you can live in Albuquerque, and I guarantee if you watch our series Absolutely Albuquerque, you are going to be dazzled by the people and the places that are featured in this series, and you’ll find new places to visit. So, there’s a utility aspect for locals, and that’s what we were hearing in the research. But if you live in any other city in the U.S. and you’re watching Absolutely Albuquerque, I guarantee that you will be dazzled by the magnetism in this series, and you’ll want to book your ticket to Albuquerque.
So, that’s what we’re really going for, these series that speak to locals in a way that feels different and special and feels a little bit behind the scenes, but also speaks to anyone else in terms of providing a really exciting backdrop for these series and stories.
In your mind and in your research, who do you envision is the viewer here?
Well, we know that we have a strong local news viewership because we have our connection to our iconic news brands. In our mind, we are also skewing younger. That is the audience that is tuning in, a larger percentage of the audience is younger, tuning into streaming in this platform.
I think we’re in a great space, but we are programing for both of those audiences or that total audience. I’m very excited about our lineup in 2024, which is going to delve a little deeper into documentary programing and news adjacent content, and documentary programing is very close to my heart.
Yeah, and I want to come to that in a moment. First, there’s a volume of stuff here and it’s sort of remarkable given it started I think it was September 2021 to now, and there’s some 500-odd hours of original programing now inside of this service. That is a lot of material. Did you come at the building of Very Local from kind of a holistic perspective of we need some of this, we need some of that, or did you ultimately end up aggregating it together, show by show?
It’s a great question. I mean, we did look at it holistically in terms of what is our viewership looking for, and I mentioned that research. But there was a little bit of building and trying out and experimenting along the way. We had to create series that worked in our budget model, and that means creating a certain format to fit that budget model. We also tapped into our great internal production team that produces a large percentage of these series.
But also, we have fantastic external production partners, production partners in Albuquerque that are working with us to produce Absolutely Albuquerque, for example. And so, you have a combination, a mix there, and you have production partners who live in these cities, and they really have a pulse on what’s going on in these cities, and what we should be highlighting.
And you spoke of costs. I have to think, I mean, because this is a startup network, you’re operating under some considerable cost constraints to produce this stuff, but it does have very high production values. It looks like something—I looked at a pretty wide cross-section of the shows that you have on there. They have a veneer, a level of polish that looks not unlike something you’d see on Food Network or HGTV or, you know, cable networks that have been around a long time doing this for quite a while. Is there sort of key formula for the aesthetics of each of these shows, a kind of throughline that you want to have established?
Well, yeah, I mean, you said it, Michael. I mean, we think that our programing is cable quality, broadcast quality. In fact, many of our series do run in some fashion on linear. We have a weekend slot running Very Local content because we want to whet people’s appetite so that they can come back for more.
And in terms of quality, we have a team, an internal team, that are TV documentary reality veterans. We are aiming for high quality, premium production. And we’re able to do it at a leaner — we have a leaner model. But as I mentioned, that goes into how we formulate, what the format is going to be. So, we aren’t spending days and days filming. We keep it pretty lean and pretty tight.
Do you also hub the post-production in any way? Do you have a central team?
We have a central post-production team that works on some of our productions. So, it’s a hybrid working with external partners that are based in our markets and a primary post-production team.
A lot of these shows, maybe even most or all of them, are carried on the backs of the host, and a viewer will tend to lean in and care more if they like the way that the presenter is framing it all up. So, I would have to imagine that your selection of hosts — none of them are really like national names per se of any of these programs — at least that I’ve seen. What were you looking for in selecting those presenters?
Well, we do have some national names, who host some of our national series and our local series. What’s really great about our hosts, and I hope that they do become household names, is that there is a strong connection to their local communities, and they’re known in their community. So, Ed and Day in the Burg, for example, in Pittsburgh, Ed and Day, Ed Bailey and Day Bracy, are two local podcasters, comedians, and they are the co-founders of the first Black beer festival in Pittsburgh. And so, they take viewers on a journey every episode to a different neighborhood in the ‘Burg, to really explore what’s special about these neighborhoods. They end every episode at a brewery because that is unique to… that’s their thing, and so they’re able to kind of share their unique insights in that setting.
Our host Greg Adams in Milwaukee, he hosts Show Me Milwaukee, he’s a local deejay. He’s so fantastic as a host. The concept of that show is that every week Greg meets up with a different Milwaukeean who shows Greg their favorite part of the city. So, not only do you have Greg as a notable local, you have other notable figures in Milwaukee who are giving him insight into a different aspect of the city. So, we’re really looking for – when we’re casting for our hosts, we are looking for people who have a local connection, a local passion in their community that can then be showcased in these series.
In Sacramento, we have a duo, Maddy and Dixie Take Sactown, they are local influencers and blog about the restaurant scene and things to do in Sacramento. So, they were perfect hosts for Maddy and Dixie Take Sactown.
And in Absolutely Albuquerque, our host, Amanda Machon, she is a singer in a local rock band, and she just brings this incredible energy to that series.
Speaking of our national hosts, who do have a bit more recognizability. Rob Mariano of Survivor fame, and who’s doing so much more than Survivor, but longtime Survivor contestant and winner, he went by the moniker Boston Rob because he just had so much love — he has so much love — for his hometown. So, he hosts…
And an accent that is thick as …
Yeah, it couldn’t be more Boston, and so he jumped at the opportunity to work on Boston Rob Does Beantown and showcase all of these amazing places in Boston and New England.
And Kinga Phillips, she hosts our national series Finding Adventure. Kinga has been a host on Discovery Shark Week, has hosted segments and series on Travel Channel. I kind of liken her to Indiana Jones meets Oprah in that the premise of this series Finding Adventure is about taking kind of a local homebody, somebody who doesn’t get out much, for a whole host of reasons, and exposing them to these great experiences that can be found right in their own backyards.
So, you don’t have to travel far to find adventure, but we’re also documenting the transformation that these folks get when they’re experiencing these great adventures with Kinga. One of our featured characters was a young man named Maverick, a 17-year-old young man who spends five to eight hours a day on his computer. His mom really wanted to get him out of the house, and so he goes on these incredible adventures with Kinga, and you see the change in him, and you see the change in his mom. I think what we’re trying to say with Finding Adventure is you don’t have to travel to these far-flung places to not only discover what is right outside your own backyard, but also to experience some personal transformation. So, I’m really proud of that series. And again, you don’t have to live in these localities to watch them. You can watch Very Local anywhere in the U.S. and see these incredible stories, and you don’t have to be a local to feel that connection.
It strikes me as interesting that, a number of the hosts of the destination shows are coming from the world of podcasting, and one of them is, is in a band, and you said social influencers. I wonder if they make for a different kettle of fish, host-wise, than someone who is perhaps more TV-centric in their pedigree of hosting experience?
I think they do, Michael. I’d love to hear from you if you think so, because I know that you’ve watched, a few of these shows and trailers. I think that there is a level of authenticity that they do bring to the table, a little bit less formal and very much like a passion that they have for their community and showcasing all of the great things that can be found in their cities.
I know that there is a relationship with the Hearst stations across the country for some of this content. How do you lean on them? How do you interrelate with them in putting some of this or maybe even all or most of it in motion?
Sure. We interrelate in so many ways. So, with the with the TV stations, obviously they have great brand equity, and they are mentioning Very Local all the time on their newscasts because it’s another way that viewers can get the newscast. But in addition to the newscast, what’s cool about Very Local is that — let’s take the election, for example. We have on every one of our home pages a section for local election coverage. So, we can take that reporting that has been that great reporting, that has been done and showcased within a newscast. We can pull that out and present election, local election and national election segments and reporting in an area on the app, which we think is offering our audience a great service and something different that they can get in addition to the newscast. So, if I’m a local voter, in Greenville and I want to catch up on WYFF’s news coverage of the election, I can go to Very Local and find it in one place. So, that is one way that we interface with the news stations and try to highlight the great reporting on Very Local.
Another thing is live events. So, this is a really cool feature on the platform. In a few weeks, WDSU in New Orleans will be reporting on and showcasing Mardi Gras. We will be streaming that live on Very Local and simulcasting that from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., but not only on the WDSU home page of Very Local. You can tune in to any one of our locations, including our general “best of” location. If you’re not in any of our locations, and you will be alerted that you can watch the Mardi Gras parade and coverage, and if you click into that, you, too, can experience the parade live. And so that’s how we can kind of tap into news events that our stations are covering and make it available to a national audience.
Will that be the first time that you’re going live to something like that?
No, we do that all the time with big events. We’ll be doing it for the Boston Marathon, with our New Hampshire primary coverage and the caucus in Des Moines, we also went live and alerted our audience that they could tune into that coverage to see it. I think it’s very innovative. I don’t think — I haven’t seen another platform that is offering the types of access that we are offering to both local news in different markets and original programing.
We also partner with our news stations on original programing. We had a documentary premiere last year called The Lost Children of Carlisle, produced in partnership with WGAL [Lancaster, Pa.] It was about the Native American boarding school in Carlisle, Pa., one of the first boarding schools in the late 1800s. And the access that WGAL had to that story was very unique. We looked at currently, today, there are native relatives of ancestors who died at the boarding school, who were buried in unmarked graves. And today their relatives are trying to identify those remains and, in some cases, have them return to sacred land. So, this is a story that goes back to the late 1800s, but is still relevant today in this search, and so that is the type of story that we might partner up with a station to produce and showcase on Very Local as well as showcase on linear.
That sounds like the Canadian residential schools, which they’d only closed in the 1990s. Actually, it’s similar to that.
With that content, would that have been something made at the local station and then conscripted into Very Local, or was it produced …
So, stations do produce their own specials and in some cases documentary content that we feature on Very Local. But in this case, and in many cases, we work together, so we work very closely with the station to co-produce it.
Are the stations now ramping up their documentary production around the advent of Very Local?
I wouldn’t say they’re ramping up. The stations are focused on their core mission and what they do well. But when there is an opportunity, when we can tap into great reporting, great access, and it lends itself to a longer form documentary that can serve both Very Local and the stations. It’s a great thing to take advantage of.
Now I know, and you mentioned before, that these shows have a block on Hearst stations, so they get some linear play, but they’re created originally for streaming. How, if at all, do you approach their production differently because of that factor? Are you a person who believes that a show made for streaming is a different kind of animal than one would consume on linear?
Well, we have our FAST channel, so everything runs on our FAST channel. So, we are programing mainly in that same 30-minute or 60-minute block. So, in terms of our TRTs, we’re still trying to hit those marks, or we are hitting those marks. It makes it easy for these series and specials to transport to linear and elsewhere. I think our programing, I wouldn’t say it is made for streaming. We’re creating great programing that can live on any platform.
I guess I’m just asking more about not so much the technicality, but the sensibility of a thing that’s made for digitally native consumption originally, if there’s just a different mindset, a different editing or kind of aesthetic that you might bring to it than something that that would have felt very TV native.
Yeah, I think that if you take a look at our content, you’ll see that it moves pretty quickly. We’re trying to capture people in those, you know, first few minutes. We are trying to — it looks very premium. But I also think I would say it’s a little bit of a hybrid, Michael, in that we are using many of the conventions of traditional TV as well.
Well, you’ve been doing this for a couple of years now, in this project. What have you learned about what to jettison and what to lean into programing-wise?
Well, our city guide shows are doing very well, and I think that’s to be expected. If there is a show about your town, Ed and Day in the Burg, Show Me Milwaukee, that’s generating a lot of excitement in our local communities. True crime also does well, but that, you know, it does well on, on many different platforms, so that’s not a surprise. I would say that our city guide shows, our food shows are also doing incredible. And what we were doing less of last year that we’re doing more of is documentary programing, and that is because we see that there’s an appetite for it.
And the competition category seems to be one that you’re leaning into pretty deeply as well.
Yeah. I mean, I think that with a competition category, there are high stakes involved. And, you know, the viewer wants to see who’s going to come out on top. What’s a little bit different about our competitions as well, there are high stakes, and you have the chefs vying to win or the artist in Maker Nation Challenge wanting to be crowned the winner. There’s also a camaraderie that you’ll see in our series when you’ll see an artist wanting to help out another artist. Oh, they just won one of our segments that that got them a little bit more time, but they’re going to give that to their opponent because it seems like that opponent needs more time than they need. So, there’s also this real …
A very Great British Bake-Off kind of spirit.
Yeah, there’s a community aspect of it. And that what I love about Very Local. It is about community, bringing community together.
Well, Laura Ling is the VP of Very Local at Hearst Television. Laura, thank you so much for being here.
Thanks to all of you for watching and listening. You can see all of our own vast catalog of past episodes at TVNewsCheck.com and on our YouTube channel, as well as an audio version wherever you get your podcasts. We are back most Fridays with a new episode. See you next time.