In Depth

Sign Off: Digital Dimes in Troubled Times

By Tom Petner

Do you watch any of the new local digital channels?

No, neither do I.

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.”

He’s right. A few groups like Hearst Television, Raycom Media, and the ABC O&O stations (I hear they’re working on programming health and wellness content) and some individual stations are working on programming options for these new channels. But, to date, the majority of digital offerings across the country are pretty thin.

While you’ll find some new options on the local tiers, including Estrella TV, the 24-hour Spanish-language network, and for the rerun-inclined, RetroTV and THIStv, many local stations are sticking to where they have the biggest investment, local news — using their digital tier for extended coverage.

KOLD-TV in Tucson, Ariz., 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 multialarm 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 our 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-TV in Savannah, Ga. 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 hyperlocal 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 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 salespeople don’t want to sell it, because there are no big commissions involved. Salespeople don’t make money, and the station doesn’t make money off the channels. So there’s no motivation.”

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 hyperlocal as it gets.

Maybe the answer to cracking the digital programming code is Keep it simple — Keep it hyperlocal. As Petrovich reminded me, WGN-TV 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 e-mail 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.