In Depth

Stations Put the Election Online

Broadcasters Are Turning to Technology to Reach Younger News Consumers

Both local broadcasters and network news operations have been harnessing inexpensive Web technology to broaden their election coverage and reach out to younger online-only news consumers.

Among those that have adapted their political coverage during this election season to the fast-paced, always-on nature of Internet news consumption are ABC News and stations owned by Fox, CBS and Hearst-Argyle. They plan to continue to leverage Web capabilities that help them reach younger viewers right on through to the presidential election in November.

These efforts are critical because technology is driving this election cycle in a way it hasn’t in years past, said David Chalian, political director for ABC News. “It’s the YouTube election,” he said. “The appetite has become so insatiable for instant video, and that appetite and the fact that technology enables us to feed it rather easily has changed things.”

In this election season, candidates are responding faster to comments made from the other camp via video, and those clips find their way online within minutes, he said.

That’s why YouTube and other Web sites have played key roles so far.

Hearst-Argyle, for instance, created a YouTube channel and also developed a real-time response feature for some of its station Web sites that lets a select group of people respond online during candidate debates. The station group used this Web capability during the New Hampshire debates earlier this year and plans to enable real-time responses for the presidential debates in the fall.

“The real-time response was something that enhanced what TV has already done in elections and debates,” said Candy Altman, VP of news for Hearst-Argyle. The broadcaster finds a select group of voters who are undecided, then invites them to respond to statements the candidates make during the debates to get a sense of how the candidates are faring with swing voters. “They watch the debate in real time and respond positively or negatively to what they heard during the debates.”

That tool also ties the Web more closely to TV—that’s something stations are eager to do as more viewing migrates to the Internet.

With the real-time debates, a viewer watches on-air and then can track the responses on his computer at the same time. “So as a user I am able to see what people are thinking beyond me, so it’s taking me into the broader universe and connecting with the larger world,” said Ms. Altman.

She said the station group will expand on those efforts for the upcoming convention coverage and into the fall. That includes reaching out to students at universities in its markets as well as delegates and inviting them to blog on the respective local station sites.

“They will be looking for some way to distinguish the Web coverage. Each station will do something a little differently depending on accessibility to delegates, proximity to the colleges,” she said. “Part of our role as journalists is to take people where they can’t go themselves and go to meetings and get you behind-the-scenes. There are lots of creative ways to cover this and capitalize on what already is intense interest in this political campaign.”

Some of Hearst’s earlier initiatives included having ABC affiliate WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H., partner with ABC News and Facebook to co-host the Republican and Democratic debates in January; providing ongoing video coverage on YouTube of various debate preparations; and partnering with social networking site Gather.com to sponsor a blogging competition for debates last year. WMUR also streamed the debates in full, live on WMUR.com.

“It’s no longer good enough for a TV station to have a great newscast,” said Jacques Natz, director of digital media content at the station group. “It has to have a strong Web site with unique content. It can’t just be a reprise of what was on TV.”

The CBS-owned stations also have leaned on their Web sites to offer additional coverage of the primaries. For instance, in Boston, CBS-owned WBZ-TV and independent sister station WSBK-TV did “triplecast” coverage of the primaries, using the two stations and wbztv.com. The Web site offered live video chat and election Web chat earlier this year.

CBS will continue to use these applications for campaign coverage into the November election and beyond, CBS said.

The Fox station group also has found new ways to use Web technology, such as Skype.

WTVT-TV in Tampa, Fla., has turned to the inexpensive Web telephony service to bring video back from remote locations where it would be too costly to send a satellite truck. Skype provides a low-cost solution to feed video back to Web producers for use online, said Chris Boex, senior Web producer for the station.

The station did that last summer when it covered the Young Republicans convention and sent a Web producer to Miami to obtain footage of the event. “That would have cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars to feed. But she just attached a camera to her computer and sent it back that way, so not only did we have a journalist asking questions, but it was a way to give it national coverage so all the Fox local stations could carry it if they wanted to,” Mr. Boex said.
These efforts are important because they help stations reach a younger electorate that consumes news online rather than on-air. The station group will use similar technology to cover the Democratic convention in June in Denver, he said. Fox likely also will use the live streaming service Mogulus to cover that event.

“The goal is to provide 24/7 coverage,” Mr. Boex said. “These technologies make it more possible for continuing coverage. We are identifying underserved niches and talking about younger voters not tuning in to evening news. So it’s a way to bring ourselves up and be on the radar of young voters and viewers.”

Like Hearst, Fox stations will be seeking interesting bloggers for its sites throughout the election season.