ABC’s Multicast Play: All’s Well With Live Well

Emily Barr (left) and Peggy Allen are the ABC execs charged with developing the programming and expanding the distribution of the O&Os' Live Well multicast channel. The diginet featuring  lifestyle programming aimed at women and produced mostly by the stations is now shopping for additional affiliates with the goal of reaching 50-60% of TV homes by the end of the year. The two outline their strategies and goals as they compete for a valuable — and increasingly in demand — chunk of stations’ spectrum.

Just over two years ago, the ABC O&Os put their excess digital spectrum and production capacity to work by launching a home-grown multicast channel. Aimed primarily at women, Live Well HD (now Live Well) offered a lively mix of lifestyle programming, most from the stations, but some from syndicators.

Neither the channel nor its slick companion website gives a clue as to its origin. The name and logos of ABC and its parent Disney are nowhere to be found. That’s by design. ABC sees the channel as a network and has been pitching it to other stations without regard to their primary affiliations.

At launch, the channel/network reached 23.3% of U.S. TV homes through the 10 ABC O&Os. (ABC has since sold two of its small-market stations, but they remain Live Well affiliates.)

Then, last November, Live Well took its first step beyond ABC when Belo began carrying it on five stations: WFAA Dallas-Fort Worth, KMOV St. Louis, WWL New Orleans, WVEC Norfolk-Portsmouth, Va., and WCNC Charlotte, N.C. That pushed coverage to nearly 29%.

Charged with developing Live Well programming and stretching its reach are Emily Barr, who doubles as GM of WLS Chicago, and Peggy Allen, a former Lifetime programming exec who was hired last fall to fine-tune the programming and help with the distribution.

In this interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Barr and Allen talk about their distribution ambitions (up to 60% clearance by year’s end), a revised programming strategy and their belief that they have the right service at the right time.


An edited transcript:

How’s the network doing in terms of ratings and revenue? Is it showing up in the books? Are you getting any significant revenue from it?

Barr: Let me answer the revenue question first. We are generating a nice, growing amount of revenue since we launched in April of ’09. And we’re making some money with it, so we’re very pleased with where the network stands revenue-wise. Ratings-wise, we literally just started getting numbers the first of the year. So the ratings are there. They are cable-like in their quantity. We didn’t expect that there would be massive numbers, and there aren’t massive numbers.

Peggy, you were brought in primarily to be the programmer, right?

Allen: That’s right. I came in, frankly, with two main goals. One was to look at the current programming, do some research around our market audience and then say where can we improve on our current programming and what are we missing. And the other charge was to work with Emily and determine how we could expand the footprint of the network.

What’s fun is the reaction that we’ve gotten from the station groups. It has really been extremely positive in part because they’ve experienced the competition and, frankly, been a little disappointed.

We’re original content and we’re quality. It’s something that you can embrace and start talking about on your D1 channels. One of the nice reactions we’ve had is that they have looked at our shows and said, we’d like to incorporate some of these shows on our D1. And, of course, that then helps the sale.

I wasn’t aware that that was happening, that station were putting some of the shows on the main channels?

Barr: Absolutely. For example, at WLS, we run three of the shows on Sunday morning. All of our stations, in fact, are doing that now, including the Belo stations. And it’s really been a terrific way for advertisers to get a sense of the quality of the programming, to garner a real number on the D1.

So, Peggy, you said that when you came in, you looked at the programming to see what was missing. What was missing? Or, let me rephrase that: Has the programming strategy changed since your arrival?

Allen: Yeah, it has. What came through loud and clear on the research is two main points. First and foremost, we need to remind ourselves that we have to be an entertainment-based network. Women come to television to escape and be entertained. Certainly, learning something along the way is important, but we have to make certain that we are using that entertainment filter when we look at all of our shows.

What that means then, almost by default, is that we need to recognize that we’re a personality-driven network. We need to have hosts who are passionate about their subject matter, and can share that passion with the viewer. What’s exciting is that we have several shows that are doing that quite well. In particular, Mirror/Mirror, which is our fashion and beauty show coming out of the Houston station [KTRK], and our travel show called Motion, which is hosted by an outdoor, backpacking guy named Greg Aiello.

In terms of new areas that came through in the research, there’s no question that stretching the dollar is of great importance to our viewers. So, we will be launching a new show in late spring called Deals, which will take look at fun, clever ways you can immediately start getting more for your dollar, almost taking shopping as a contact sport.

What’s your programming budget for the year? Can you give me that number?

Barr: That’s our secret sauce. You wouldn’t believe it if I told you.

Are the stations getting paid for the programming they produce?

Barr: In the very beginning, the stations helped foot the bill. Now Live Well has its own budget. The stations are reimbursed. Obviously, the stations have facilities and resources that wouldn’t exist necessarily if you had to go do this on your own. And part of our secret sauce is that we’re able to capitalize on other productions that are going on, or use the technical facilities and infrastructure that’s already there, so we don’t always have to pay the full price for a studio or things like that.

I noticed in your September announcement of new shows, you are going outside the stations for some syndicated shows.

Allen: We’ve gotten very creative about looking at shows and where they’re produced, and how they’re produced, and what fits within what we’re trying to create here. And we’re now being sought out by syndicators, which should not surprise you. So that helps as well.

Does it make any sense to commission original productions outside the ABC family?

Allen: It may eventually, but I’ve got to be honest with you, we have not come close to tapping what we’re going to be able to accomplish at the station level.

Internally, there’s a little bit of taking this for granted. But, as an outside person coming in, and having now visited all the stations, it just blows my mind — what we’re producing with such a cost-effective model.

The thing to keep in mind is we’re not turning this over to interns. It’s seasoned producers and programmers at those local stations who already know how to tell stories well, and already understand this consumer.

The key for us now is to channel it so that we’re all on the same page. So that WABC’s idea of Live Well syncs up with KABC’s and KABC’s syncs up with PVI’s [WPVI Philadelphia].

Barr: I will tell you that this has probably single-handedly invigorated all of these stations in a way that we haven’t seen in years.

So you have the ABC 10, including Flint and Toledo, plus you have the Belo five. Are announcements of other affiliates imminent, Emily?

Barr: I’m not going to give you group names right now. We had a very positive and successful response from our trip to NATPE. And we’re very optimistic that we’re going to have some announcements to make, but I don’t want to jump the gun and tell you who those might be.

What are your goals in terms of distribution for 2011? Where would you like to be by the end of the year?

Barr: We’d really like to be well north of 50% or 60% of the country. Whether or not we get there is going to depend on a lot of different factors. It’s interesting. We’re the only ones out there producing original programming as far as I know. There are a lot of D2 networks that are repurposing either old movie packages or old TV shows, what have you. But we actually have original programming. So that’s been very positively received by everybody we’ve presented to.

Now some groups have got deals that are coming up or looking at their mobile commitments and things of that nature. So there’s a lot of tug on the spectrum. And I think that’s going to play a role in how many of these station groups are willing to jump in, or make changes, or what have you. Just so you know, we offer Live Well in both an HD and an SD format, which lowers the spectrum commitment.

What is the basic deal? Is it a straight inventory split?

Barr: It’s an inventory split.

What’s the split?

Barr: That is part of the negotiation. It’s a combination of the split and what kind of commitment we can make, and how many years’ commitment they’re prepared to make. So the dance begins once the interest has been expressed.

Do affiliates have to promise full cable carriage?

Allen: That’s something they need to work on to try and get cleared. It helps if they’ve already got their D2 channel cleared so then they’re just flipping from the competitor to us. But from our standpoint, yes, we would want the cable clearance.

You’ve been at this since 2009. Why aren’t you further along in your distribution?

Barr: Well, actually, we didn’t start in 2009. We had some very preliminary conversations just to say we were out there. But we really wanted to take this for a good long test drive on our 10 stations before we started syndicating it. We wanted to work out the bugs, and develop more programs, and frankly, develop a library of shows. And so we really did not get into earnest development of the syndication model until probably last spring.

What kind of pushback do you generally get from station groups? What’s the big objection?

Allen: One of the things that was a lesson learned is that our delivery system had to be as turn-key as possible. So we are switching over from fiber to a satellite delivery system within about 45 days. So, I think that switch, as well as opening up the ability to take it as an SD feed rather than HD are two significant corrections.

Elaborate on that.

Allen: When we originally started this back in 2007-08, HD really did seem to be the differentiator, so we have created all the programs in high definition. And in fact, we air them on eight of our stations in high def. Flint and Toledo can’t do it, so they’ve always aired it in SD.

What we’ve come to learn is that because of the pull on the spectrum, there were station groups like Belo that were really interested in picking us up, but did not want to have to devote that much spectrum to carrying it in HD. So providing the service in SD has been a big draw now.

Does the fact that ABC broadcasts Live Well in HD obviate ABC from going into the mobile DTV business?

Barr: Not right now. I don’t want to get into all of that because that’s really not my bailiwick. But I think that the short answer is, we’re very happy airing Live Well in HD right now. If a time comes down the road where the mobile demands require more spectrum, then we always have the option of dropping back to SD.

Is there any sense that you’re a little late to the game? I must have written about 20 of these multicast channels by now.

Allen: I wouldn’t call us late to the game. I actually think the timing is working to our benefit. While we were getting our house in order, our competitors were getting cleared, but their station groups were getting disappointed, to be honest with you. We think that a lot of our station groups that are expressing keen interest are doing so because they went with our competitor right out of the gate, and aren’t entirely happy.

What we’re finding is that one of the very first questions we get from the station groups is, are we allowed to have total exclusivity in our market? They want to own it in their market. They want to put their brand with the Live Well network, which helps them sell it, and helps empower our brand in their market.

Has Belo or any of these other prospective affiliates expressed any interest in creating shows themselves?

Barr: The short answer on that is yes. Some of the groups have expressed interest, and we are, in fact, in discussions with a couple of them about either talent or actual shows.

Is the website an important part of this? Do you anticipate that as a contributor to your revenue?

Allen: What we know is, if we’re going to provide great take-away content on the network, we have to support it with great take-away content on the website. So, first and foremost, that’s the role that the website’s playing. It’s doing some pretty great traffic, but it’s not being sold separately. Down the road, yes, we think it’s going to be important from a revenue standpoint. But right now, to do the right thing by our viewers, we need to have that kind of a quality website.

Comments (3)

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Lady Success says:

February 22, 2011 at 9:42 am

I remember when multicasting was first being discussed, it was pitched as though it could be an OTA home for cable channels. We were asked to imagine a world where your local ABC affiliate could also air ESPN on a digital subchannel, or your NBC station could also air USA Network. Whatever happened to that? Many digital networks now seem to be what TV Land used to be: reruns of 60s and 70s classic TV.

Kathleen O'Donnell says:

February 22, 2011 at 10:32 am

@Myke25, Remember USDTV where stations in several markets partnered thier digital multicast channels to offer an OTA “cable light” product for $19.95/month. By appealing to low-end customers with a 20 channel package, the endeavor ended up with a 4% monthly churn (almost twice that of a cable operator) due to dissasfaction with the limited offering. They eventually shut down. The lesson? A $20 dollar package of limited services can’t compete with the fat packages and bundled services offered by cable ops, consumer demands for a la carte notwithstanding. With that firmly in the past, kudos to LWN for getting out there with a slate of original programming as opposed to a weather loop or rewarming 40 year old sitcoms that TV Land wouldn’t touch.

mike tomasino says:

February 22, 2011 at 11:39 am

One of the big problems with LiveWell has been the attempt to run it in 720p HD. 480i widescreen would have been a better format both for the picture quality of LiveWell and preserving the picture quality of the main channel. As long as people continue to be willing to pay premium prices for the very limited added value of pay-TV don’t expect any established cable channels to become multicast channels.

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