Talking TV: How NBCU Local Is Strategizing On FAST Channels
There’s a palpable excitement among broadcasters about FAST channels, and there’s plenty to love about them for local TV newsrooms.
For one thing, they work just like linear television merely transposed to a streaming environment, allowing newsrooms to tap into muscle memory to put content there. And for another, stations have near-limitless latitude in programming FAST channels, not having to navigate around network programming or other linear guardrails.
Angela Grande is director of streaming news channels at NBCUniversal Local, and her job of late has been to build out the group’s rules of engagement for FAST. The role involves mediating between the local stations, the various FAST platforms themselves — an ever-growing number — and the group’s back-end technology partner. It’s an environment of constant communication and iteration of increasing strategic importance as FAST gains currency among viewers.
In this Talking TV conversation, Grande explains how she choreographs it all, what NBCU Local is learning about FAST’s utility value and where she sees the landscape headed.
Episode transcript below, edited for clarity.
Michael Depp: Broadcasters have been very leaned into FAST channels for a couple of years now. Like everything else, that platform is evolving quickly and it’s a moving target for programmers. FAST channel strategies need to be nimble and nuanced, and there needs to be plenty of conversations, both internally within a broadcast group and with FAST streaming technology and platform partners, to keep the product well-oiled.
I’m Michael Depp, editor of TVNewsCheck, and this is Talking TV, our weekly video podcast. Today I’m with Angela Grande, director of streaming news channels at NBCUniversal Local. We’ll talk about how she works with NBC owned stations, the platforms on which their FAST channels iterate and their technology partner as part of an ever-evolving strategy. We’ll be right back
Welcome Angie Grande, to Talking TV.
Angela Grande: Hi, Michael. So excited to be here talking with you.
Very glad to have you, Angie. FAST channels have been around for a few years, but local news is relatively new to that ecosystem. How have you developed relationships with the major fast platforms so that you can maximize the performance of your news channels?
Yeah, that is such a great point. This is a fast-moving space, no pun intended and working with these platforms has been essential to our success, which we’ve seen rapidly happening since we launched our first channels in January of 2022. So, we’re about two years in, over the course of the past two years.
My team and I have worked to really strengthen our relationships with each platform, and we do so by meeting with them regularly, every other month, if not monthly. We have clear lines of communication, and we’ve set up pipelines where we can get the plans from the stations and then get that information to the platforms so that their channels can be promoted during big events like the Chicago Marathon, New Year’s Eve, major weather events… The strength of our relationship is what’s really helped us push that forward.
Can you kind of paint a picture of this relationship, what it looks like on the day-to-day? I mean, I know part of it is being aware of the platform’s own marketing priorities, right? And then topicality is important, as you just mentioned, things like marathons, New Year’s Eve, etc.
We work really closely with each of the platforms like I shared. And we have a calendar of all of the big events or topics throughout the entire year that they really feel strongly about leaning into. So, when we go to our day-to-day, we keep that in mind. And then we work with all of the individual stations. My team and I work with nearly two dozen stations across the NBCU Local division for Telemundo and NBC.
The stations generate all the content. We work with them directly to get their content plans on big events, like maybe a big weather event like a hurricane in Florida, New Year’s Eve in Times Square for New York, the Chicago Marathon for our Chicago market. We gather their plan and what they’re going to be producing for the channel. We’ve then set up direct pipelines of communication to all nine platforms that we’re currently working with and counting, and we write up a pitch, we send it to the platform, they buy in. “Oh my gosh, that sounds like a great event. Let’s get on a call.” And that’s where we get really excited, because we can start collaborating and brainstorming new ways that our channels can be promoted. So that’s where they’ll say we can send a push alert out to all users in that in with ZIP codes in that area, or we can put that channel in a prominent position.
One very simple and effective thing that we’ve come up with over the past two years is if you look at the layout on any of the platforms, you’ll see a generic tile. We call it a tile, right. You’ll see like NBC Chicago with the peacock and the Chicago logo. Well, during a big event, one thing we now do for everything is we’ve worked with the platforms to take a special graphic and swap that in. So, when people are scrolling through the guide, they see that special event and they immediately know if they click in, that’s what they’re going to get. That’s one really effective method of helping increase our discoverability during big events.
So, you’ve got your graphics department at the ready to jump in, and spin something like that up or throw that together pretty quickly, it sounds like?
Yeah. My team pairs with the HQ marketing team here in our local division, and then we reach out to each individual station and their brand director will create the graphics. If we’re working with Chicago on the Chicago Marathon, that team will know we’re going to get into promotion mode with the platforms and that their team will create all the special graphics. We also know at this point all of the different specs that each platform requires, and then we get all of the graphics in through the pipeline to get that special promotion up and running.
There’s no fumbling around looking at what the specs are, and you’ve got everything. You’re just ready to push it, resize things and go and run.
A lot of the events you’ve talked about so far have been events that we all have access to, but you’ve got the Olympics at NBC coming up in Paris. I imagine that’s going to be quite significant for your FAST channel programming and marketing.
Oh, we’re so excited about that. We just had a call this week with our marketing department and all stakeholders across the division who are creating special content that we’re going to be able to take and build into all of our FAST channels. So, we’re super excited about that.
We also are doing kickoff calls now that we’re in the new year, with each platform and one top agenda item on each of our kickoff calls is the Olympics. We want to look ahead: Are there any special layouts we can come up with? Different ways to alert viewers that we haven’t tried yet now that we have this highly coveted content that only we can provide on our channels? We’re so excited to really get into brainstorm mode with the platforms, and then again to work internally on all of the great ways that we can be creating special content.
And one thing that’s really incredible with these games is we now have these FAST channels, 15 FAST channels up and running, and that is a total free space for all of this great content. We can take all the station-made content by special digital teams, the HQ team here in our division and create hours of Olympic coverage that we can then pitch to platforms and get in special sections on their guides.
In the road to the Olympics, how far out will you begin to start rolling out content — that is, pre-Olympics coverage?
This month. We’re in January and it’s already begun.
That’s the call we had this week internally where pieces are already being created and special shows are already being crafted leading up to the games this summer. And we’re already working on how we can start plugging them into the channels on the weekends when we know people are clicking in for a little bit more of a laid-back experience. And then as we increase the production across the division of that content, we’ll begin to formulate longer blocks, especially on the weekends as we get closer to the games to build that anticipation.
Internally within NBCU Local, you’ve also got a lot of wrangling to do with all of the individual O&Os, and each station has its own channel and its own channel captain, a person who has been assigned there to spearhead for FAST and interface with you. Who typically plays that role in a newsroom?
It varies based on the station. I say that most news directors have appointed an assistant news director as that captain, an EP. We’re also starting to see a new trend across our division where there are, you know, directors of multiplatform content where they’ll be focused on digital FAST and other pillars.
And this is one of the pillars that will fall under their purview. We’re seeing that happen across the division — strong editorial sense, people who can latch on to new technology, which is a big part of our production. These partners have been essential across all the stations and making this happen.
How does your team work individually with each station? How do you collaborate in a pragmatic sense?
We put a lot of thought into this when we first got started. We’re like, OK, we have 20-plus stations to be communicating with constantly, right? And we formed a small team of 10 people here in South Florida with two members in other stations. We have one person in Chicago in the Central time zone and another person in L.A. to cover the West Coast. The rest of us are down here in our Miami office.
A big hurdle at the beginning was how do we break down the walls and virtually embed ourselves in all these newsrooms across the country, because we need to know when news is breaking. We need to know when stations need to go live. We’re in charge of making sure that these channels are up to date and clean at all times. So, what we did was we tested different methods of communication. We did a lot of crowdsourcing, and we came up with a great plan that I’m so proud to say is successful.
We’ve built Teams channels for each newsroom and in those Teams channels are all members of my small-but-mighty team, and then the captain from the newsroom, like you had mentioned, management tech folks, digital folks, we asked for a representative from each day part editorially to be in that channel. And we simulate a live newsroom experience. So, if there’s breaking news in New York, someone from the New York newsroom will put in the team’s chat. “Hey, we, uh, just had a big fire break out in the Bronx. We’re about to break into the channel and go live.” My whole team sees that and jumps in and says, OK, we’ve got your back. If you we need to cut into something, we’ll make sure your playlist is clean. So that’s how we’re basically shouting across the newsroom to each other while being at all different parts of the country.
Is Teams a good tool for that? You find it sufficient?
Again, we do crowdsourcing, so some parts of our division are using Slack, some are using Teams, some people like email. We had to come in, and my goal was let’s put ourselves everywhere. So, we’re everywhere, but we decided that that’s where most of our TV partners were. So that’s why we landed on Teams as the place to put those channels, and it’s been working really well.
You also work with Amagi on the back end as your primary tech provider for the FAST platform itself. Another prong of your job is about trying to constantly iterate this technology. How does that work? How do you communicate there?
Amagi is a company that’s based in India. So, all of our tech partners for all of this development are in a completely different time zone and a completely different part of the world. So that in itself is amazing that we’re making this happen.
But what my team is doing is we’ll work with them. We have a meeting with them every single morning, the tech folks on our team, and they do a call with our partners at Amagi and then other partners from here in the division and the HQ tech team also join. And what we’ll do is share with them, as a user at a station, it would be so great if I could just hit a button and have this happen, or if I’m a programing manager here on my team in the Miami office, and I need to run 15 channels, is there a way to make the playlist do X?
So, we’ll take all of that information as users to Amagi. They develop it, and then my team serves as the people who will test it out as the super users of sorts. And then we get it to the place where we know we want it to be, and then we’ll go out and train people all across our division in all the newsrooms on how to use this new technology.
One incredible example is, in order to go live, we know you need a control room, and you need a producer, and you need all sorts of people in place, right? But one function that we’ve developed over the past couple of years with Amagi that every newsroom is now using is what we call the “immediate go live button.” And what this allows is a station can — let’s go back to that fire in the Bronx — New York can have a fire in the Bronx, they can route that feed into a web browser, hit “go live” and it immediately breaks into the channel. This can be done from a laptop on your couch at home. It can be done from your desk. It can be done from anywhere. This has really just brought so much flexibility to the whole breaking news pillar of this division. And we are seeing in our Teams chats and our virtual newsrooms throughout the day, at least once an hour. One, a newsroom is reaching out saying, “this just happened, I’m going live. This just happened. I’m going live.” And they’re using that button. It’s crazy.
So, you’re much more liberal about going live on FAST then on other platforms?
Well, yeah. What’s really incredible is it’s our space, right? In linear we share the space with other programming. We have our time slots. But here on the FAST channels it’s all ours. And I think that’s been a new opportunity for all the newsrooms and a new way to think editorially. Some great examples are when there’s big breaking news and say the Today show comes on or Nightly News is about to begin, the stations can tell their viewers, we’re about to go to Nightly News here on TV but follow us on our FAST channels because we’re going to keep this coverage going.
The 4th of July, not last year, the year before, we had, unfortunately, the parade shooting in Chicago and our FAST channels were only about seven months old at that point, but this technology was ready. So, what happened was it was, on the 4th of July, they were still searching for the gunman in this story. That was a huge public safety issue. You know, alerts going out all over. The suspected gunman was on the loose. They had to go to the fireworks on the network, and the Chicago team said, we’re about to go to the fireworks, but we want to tell you, join us here on these platforms right now, and we’re going to continue to take you through this developing story.
And then on the FAST channels, they were able to showcase when the guy got caught and everything that happened after. We tracked the analytics after that, and we actually saw how the audience pulled and spiked right during that moment when on TV, they brought people over to a place where they had more control to keep the story going.
You’ve anticipated my next question, which is: It’s one thing to be able to go live a lot and you do, it sounds like, but it’s another, you know, what do viewers think of this? What do you know from analytics?
Oh, I mean, you know, we’re two years in and we’re still very much studying all the data, and we’re definitely trying all sorts of things in partnership with all the stations. But one thing I can absolutely tell you is working is live breaking news, major events like hurricanes. We have so many success stories for our Telemundo Florida and NBC South Florida channels when it comes to major weather events down here in Florida.
The Chicago Marathon, that’s a great example of how community events that have big interest really pull viewers in. We had the Chicago Marathon, that team did an incredible job in the fall this year, and it set records for engagement when it came to the numbers that we saw.
One upshot of the FAST platform and its technology is that it allows for a lot more modularity than linear TV, and we’re talking here especially it allows for flexibility, obviously going live, where you don’t have to bump up against other programing. That’s one, one part of it, but there’s also the modularity of the units — the increments of programing that you can do. How have you been able to capitalize on that so far?
When it comes to stacking the playlists, we’re testing all different lengths of shows. One thing that’s really important to us, we want to make sure that when people are scrolling through the programing guide, what they’re reading should be matching what they’re seeing. And as we’re introducing all these systems, we have a special system just for populating the EPG, the electronic programing guide. And one thing we know through the systems is 15 minutes is the minimum show time that could be used in order to have it labeled. So, we try to keep that as our minimum and then we grow from there right to 30 or one-hour times.
One thing that we’ve definitely learned through this process is it would be amazing if news is breaking and you can quickly type it in and it would just pop up just as quickly as we can go live. But the truth is, we’re learning we need about 48 hours in order to update that guide successfully, to have the graphic match, and to have the text match on the guide.
To bring this conversation back to where we began and the platforms, the vMVPDs, with which you work, what are your priorities right now in terms of getting more out of these relationships? Do you want more data? Do you want more of anything else from them?
The partnerships have been incredible. I have to just say it’s been awesome. Just like we have captains from each station that we talked about, we have direct partners from each platform that are our go-to people. We’ve set up Slack channels with everyone, you know, email, phone calls, regular meetings. We have a great foundation.
One thing that we’re really excited about in this year is to continue exploring how we can increase our discoverability. One thing that they’ve all shared with us is that consumers are really looking for local news. They’re coming to these platforms and they’re seeking it out. They’ve shared anecdotally—the platforms—that they’re going to be rolling out more features to help give local news more prominence on the platforms.
So, something that we are looking to get more of from them is to help really increase our discoverability. Are there different ways of merchandizing we haven’t tried? Are there things unique to local news that could be new ways to reach viewers, that we can brainstorm and experiment with? So, I’d say to increase experimentation when it comes to merchandizing.
And also, another pillar would be data. Data is just … this is new to everyone, and I think gathering data from all the platforms has been an understandable hurdle, and it’s something that we’ve been navigating over the past two years. Our HQ analytics team here at NBCU Local has gotten very creative with taking what we can and making it work to at least tell us stories we need to drive our strategy forward. But I’d say, going back to your question, what do we need? We really need to continue to brainstorm, get creative, experiment and try new things for discoverability and to get more data to help us drive our success on their platforms.
Makes sense. If you were to venture any predictions about where FAST channels are headed in terms of their strategic importance to TV news, what would you say?
I would say increasing the amount of live breaking news we’re seeing, really increasing the cadence, like turning that into like a 24/7 experience, like on our FAST channels, locally speaking with the news, the stations are going up, they’re going live, breaking news is happening. But I think that as we continue to get more from the data that shows us it’s pulling people in, just seeing the frequency of that happening more and more.
Well, Angie Grande, it has been a pleasure talking to you about NBCU Local’s work on FAST Channels. Thanks for being here.
Thank you so much.
Thanks to all of you for watching and listening. There’s a new episode of talking TV most Fridays, and you can catch all of the past episodes we’ve done on TVNewsCheck.com on our YouTube channel, and we have an audio version you can find most places that you get your podcasts. Thanks for watching and listening to this one. See you next time.