Open Mic

The New Digital Channels Being Broadcast by Your Local Stations Could Be TV's New Wasteland

Tom Petner Posted November 3, 2009 at 3:27 AM

Do you watch any of the new local digital channels?

No, neither do I.

Welcome to television’s new wasteland of local digital multicasting. Now there are seven zillion more channels and still the same complaint, “all these channels and nothing to watch.” More accurately, there’s little worth watching on these new digital channels.

In June, local stations finally made the long talked about - more like ballyhooed - transition from analog to digital. Along with the transition, stations were allocated several digital channels where they could - I emphasize could - multicast different programs using the same spectrum space it takes for one analog channel. Simply explained, a local station, say one broadcasting on Channel 4, can also program channels 4.1., 4.2., 4.3. and 4.4. Suffice it to say, whatever digital magic makes it happen, it’s pretty cool. But pretty cool to a point.

Like the current real estate crisis of our “great recession,” there’s a lot of digital real estate available, and few buyers. No one group – or local broadcaster – has figured out how to program these channels and generate revenue, draw viewers and yes, make money. One broadcast consultant put it to me, “there’s a lot of talkin’ and not much doin’ with these channels.”

You’ll find some new options on the local tiers, including Estrella, the 24-hour Spanish-language network. There’s always RetroTV and THIStv, if you’re interested in going to nostalgia heaven or rerun hell. But some stations are using the channels to simply repurpose newscasts, regurgitating them into different life-forms of softball feature and lifestyle programs, e.g. WNBC’s gushy feature and lifestyle effort: “New York Nonstop.”

The television editor at the New York Daily News dubbed its launch this way, “New York Nonstop…feels a heck of a lot more like a channel for people staying in hotel than something for city regulars.” Ouch! In fairness to the station, at least they’re trying. Since its softball debut, the NBC station folks have been tinkering and changing. But some other stations are taking the easy way out, loading up their digital tier with the likes of AccuWeather. Just what we need, more local weathercasts.

Commissioner Michael Copps told NPR’s “All Things Considered” the new offerings are a far cry from what broadcasters could be doing with the new channels, "If this spectrum is going to be used just for home shopping and Doppler radar, it's falling far short of the purpose that it could be serving." Copps went on to say, "It has the capacity to represent local issues, local politics, local music, local religious and cultural diversity."

Flashback to 1999. I recall a group meeting in West Palm of the newly reconstituted Hearst-Pulitzer broadcast group. The buzz and discussion throughout the meetings was about the brave new digital world, horizontal integration of this, and vertical integration of that. It was a vision for the new media real estate to come and how digital integration would work. It was big dreams and high hopes for the digital future.

Flash forward 10 years, and much of what was discussed at those Hearst meetings has come to pass. Station websites, wireless and mobile applications have changed the “how” and “when” of delivering content. But stations are still struggling to figure out the “what” to offer on the digital real estate. A few groups like Hearst, Raycom, and the ABC O&O stations (I hear they’re working on programming health & wellness content) - and some stations are working on programming options for these new channels. But to date the majority of digital offerings across the country are pretty thin.

Some local stations are sticking to where they have the biggest investment, local news - using their digital tier for extended coverage. KOLD-TV in Tucson got high marks recently when the station decided to use its digital channel in a breaking news situation. Jim Arnold, Vice President and General Manager at KOLD, told me about his news department’s coverage of a multi-alarm fire at a local recycling plant, and management’s decision to go “wall-to-wall” on the station’s 13.2 Channel.

“I don’t assume thousands were watching, but it was the first time that we could show people what we could do in a breaking news situation,” said Arnold. So what’s the next step? “Now, we’re constantly thinking about other things to do. When Obama comes on the air at 8 p.m. on the east coast, and wipes-out our 5 p.m. newscast, why can’t we do out 5 p.m. newscast on 13.2 that night.”
But Arnold says there are two big problems for stations in getting traction for their digital channel programming, audience awareness and penetration. In short, no one is motivated to check them out.

One station getting some traction with its digital tier audience is Media General’s WSAV in Savannah, Georgia. Part of WSAV’s market takes in three counties in South Carolina, so the station launched something called “My Lowcountry 3” on its 3.2 channel. You might consider it a hyper-local newscast targeted to those South Carolina counties. The station produces a full hour using existing technology, a newspaper partnership in the Hilton Head area, and taps into content from other area Media General stations. As you might guess in this tight economy, no, WSAV hasn’t added staff. They shuffle around existing personnel to produce it.

“The feedback has been good. Our anchor is always on Facebook and Twitter during the show incorporating all sorts of feedback elements we’re getting from the area,” says Gabe Travers, Executive Producer at WSAV. “Advertisers seem to be interested. They’re placing orders specifically for that newscast, trying to reach people and target the area.”

If you think advertising is pretty soft generally, it’s an even tougher sell for local stations trying to pick up additional digital dollars with these channels.

But KOLD’s Jim Arnold is hopeful, “It may give smaller advertisers, a mom-and-pop shop, a chance to get on TV, and if they gain some traction, we can convert them to the bigger TV station, so to speak. I think the key is just getting people to finding all the dot-twos.”

One group executive - asking-to-remain-anonymous - explained the problem to me this way. “You can’t really measure the audience. It’s just not big enough. So the sales people don’t want to sell it, because there are no big commissions involved. Sales people don’t make money, and the station doesn’t make money off the channels. So there’s no motivation. If you put paid programming on one of the digital channels, the producers balk because no one is watching. They can’t sell their products. It comes down to a concept sell, supported ‘on the come’ by an advertiser. If you’re lucky, your approach is sorta’ like the old radio dollar-a-holler sell,” a few bucks for each mention.

Flashback several weeks. I drove down the New Jersey Turnpike to meet “the guys” for a dinner and our little Algonquin Round Table of television know-it-alls.

I asked the know-it-alls their take on the local digital tier. No surprise. No one there had the answer to the digital conundrum, but one longtime television pal and know-it-all, Jon Petrovich, shared an anecdote from his time as EVP with Sony Pictures International. He heard that one of the most successful channels was one just outside Guadalajara, Mexico. They simply mounted a camera in the town square where people could watch the comings and goings of town folks. It was a smash hit. Go figure. I suppose that’s about as hyper-local as it gets.

Maybe the answer to cracking the digital programming code is: keep it simple - keep it hyper-local. As Petrovich reminded me, WGN used to have Jack Brickhouse go outside the Tribune building every night and ask people questions, thus the MOS was born. CNN does it every day with Jack Cafferty’s email interaction with viewers.

I doubt mounting cameras in the town square or pure viewer interaction is the answer. But whatever it is, it’s time for television stations and groups to step up and do something soon, or those channels will simply rot on the spectrum.

As FCC Commissioner told NPR, "now that we put American consumers through this trauma of getting right with the technology…now what are we going to do with it?"#