Lee Abrams Hopes To Re-Invent Local News

This time, it's with TouchVision, a 24/7 news network that stations can participate in and stream to TV, online, tablets and phones. Broadcasters get three minutes per hour for local news inserts, five minutes of ad time for every seven minutes the network gets, exclusivity in their markets (including on digital platforms) and promotional opportunities.

With previous attempts to reinvent the local TV news format yet to succeed, could TouchVision, a private multiplatform network set to launch this summer, be the one that finally nails it?

Backed by some fairly big industry names — and, based on the size of the operation, apparently some fairly big money, too — the 24-hour news network is being billed as a format that will attract young viewers that traditional newscasts can’t.

The network, which allows local broadcasters to add content and ads, streams simultaneously on TV (most likely on a D2), online, on tablets and on mobile phones.

Lee Abrams, the former Tribune exec behind KIAH Houston’s anchorless NewsFix, who co-founded TouchVision with entertainment industry vet Steve Saslow and attorney Brandon Davis, says that is exactly what he and his partners are trying to do — although not at the expense of smart, high-quality content.

“First and foremost this is a legitimate news site,” Abrams says. However, he adds, “we are blowing up the playbook,” adding that he built the network as if he were creating the concept of providing news from scratch.

“Let’s just erase from our heads what’s been done,” he says. “This is what [TV news] would look like now.”


He may just have something, says Seth Geiger a principal in the market research firm SmithGeiger. “This may be a product whose time has come.”

Geiger says a key to TouchVision’s success could be its approach of building a digital product that plays well on TV versus the other way around, a factor that has been known to hurt broadcasters’ efforts to reach digital consumers in the past.

“Mobile is a battleground for news and news allegiances,” he says. That TouchVision offers short, “snackable” news video — on-demand as well as via streaming — gives young consumers what they want, he says.

TouchVision’s creators describe their product as a “newsmovie” — a collection of news and informational stories told through narration, visuals and music way more cinematic than what you’ll find on local TV. The TouchVision format, Abrams says, essentially hits the sweet spot between traditional TV news and entertainment shows like TMZ (on which Fox ‘s WWOR New York based its new news show, Chasing New Jersey).

“There is brain,” he says. “It’s not elitist but it’s not dumbed down.”

TouchVision’s creators also say they are committed to working with affiliates to tailor the network to local viewers.

Modeled on network-affiliate style relationships, TouchVision is allotting broadcasters that carry the network three minutes per hour for local news inserts done “TouchVision style.”

As part of the deal, broadcasters also get five minutes of ad time for every seven minutes the network gets, exclusivity in their markets (including on digital platforms) and promotional opportunities.

Stations have the option of using TouchVision content on their primary channels, whether that means creating a freestanding newscast from it or incorporating particular features into other programming, executives say.

Saslow says TouchVision is “very conscious” of helping stations make the most of the opportunity, from working with them to create inserts that fit the tenor of the network to cross promotions.

“We don’t want it to be labor intensive,” he says.

In addition, TouchVision is offering TV stations a model they know how to monetize, he says, since multiple “third-party verified” tracking metrics will be used to measure the network’s success across TV and digital screens. Ads appear on all platforms.

“It’s TV unsiloed,” Saslow says.

TouchVision uses some of the tricks Abrams developed for NewsFix, which has been on KIAH for more than two years.

(Tribune executives would not comment on NewsFix’s success for this story. But when we checked in last October, the program, albeit still in fifth place in news in its time slot, was gaining a small but growing following of young viewers.)

Like NewsFix, TouchVision has no anchors or reporters. Stories are told with narrations over a range of visuals — news service or stock footage, still photos, graphics. The Associated Press, CNN, Reuters and Getty Images are among the providers.

TouchVision has also amassed the rights to a collection of songs, which the network uses as soundtracks to its stories — part of that whole cinematic experience it is trying to create. A recent look at snapshots celebrating the birth of England’s new prince was backed by a cover version of The Supremes’ hit Baby Love.

The network also produces original, more entertainment-based features — snippets of “oddball” foreign TV, animated graphic illustrations of U.S. trends and looks at the “often nerdy world” of invention and science and TV news bloopers, among others.

We can’t yet watch TouchVision live. But an hour-long sample of the network produced recently shows what it will look like, and the kind of content it will carry.

That hour, for example, led with fairly mainstream, but sleekly packaged, news stories: the royal birth, the crash landing at La Guardia and the latest on Edward Snowden.

It also included a former cop explaining in plain talk how Stand Your Ground laws are supposed to work — which exemplifies Abrams’ assertion of neutrality. He says TouchVision will readily air the opinions of people with opposing views — it will put, say, commentaries on gun control by Ted Nugent and Barbra Streisand back-to-back — but won’t get involved in the discussion.

A rundown of the cheapest places in the United States to rent an apartment and a story about a new app able to detect whether you’re high ran during that hour as well.

TouchVision has built a sizeable operation — there are about 70 staffers — including a news team to back its claim of legitimacy as an informational service.

Bill Carey, who was the news director at both Tribune’s WPIX and WCBS in New York, heads the news division as its executive producer. Managing Editor Kathryn Janicek worked as an executive producer at NBC-owned WMAQ and Tribune flagship WGN Chicago.

The company handles everything in house, from affiliate sales to marketing. On the technical side, stations apparently don’t have a whole lot to worry about. TouchVision sends affiliates one feed that stations can use on all its platforms.

TouchVision’s apps and online sites will be location-specific so users get market-exclusive feeds.

Saslow says TouchVision already has affiliates on board, although he won’t identify them. That announcement will come within the month, he says.

One of them likely will be Weigel Broadcasting, with which TouchVision has a “strategic partnership.” Saslow would not say what exactly that means, except to say it makes sense for TouchVision to have a relationship with a local broadcaster that knows the ins and outs of the business.

TouchVision is housed in Weigel’s Chicago headquarters, although a network spokesman says that is simply a matter of TouchVision renting available space. Weigel is not a TouchVision investor, he says.

Clearly, TouchVision’s creators have high expectations for the network. Abrams says “we arrogantly hope” that TouchVision is such a force that it succeeds in transforming digital platforms the way networks like CNN changed cable TV.

“Let’s forget about what anyone else is doing and what anyone else has done … and the super forces that will engage this audience,” he says. “We are starting over.”

Read other Air Check columns here. You can send suggestions for future Air Checks to Diana Marszalek at [email protected].

Comments (4)

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E B says:

August 6, 2013 at 5:10 pm

Lee Abrams? Run, don’t walk. Hasn’t been right in decades.

Greg Doggett says:

August 6, 2013 at 6:18 pm

“hopes to reinvent” local news is the operative phrase. I couldn’t understand what the end product would be. Voice-over or music over video didn’t help me understand the user experience. Starting all over where? Linear newscasts could be aggregated from UGC. In certain cases, if a mobile camera captures a unique story, it is relevant for sure. If you had tens of thousands of videographers volunteering to cover stories and geography, you may end up with 22 minutes of watchable video. What is the purpose of this product? Under resourced TV news teams are capable, but they are delivering nine hours of live news a day. Is TouchVision suggesting it can replace that with a voiced over video montage? Mr Geiger is a skilled researcher so I would like to hear where the demand for this product is coming from. I am aware of media consumption shifts and shortened news cycles, but this product doesn’t sound like average storytelling, interesting entertainment or “cool technology.” I did not read about any experiments that made Tribune newscasts more competitive, certainly not on a consistent basis. There examples of hyper-local models working for local,linear and there are several web/mobile sources of news and entertainment, but this doesn’t sound like one of them.

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