WRAL-TV Points the Way in Cellphone Technology

Apr 18, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Local TV stations have been largely absent from the array of purveyors that have introduced a heady assortment of content for mobile phones during the past few months. The exception, as usual, is Capitol Broadcasting-owned WRAL-TV, the CBS affiliate in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., which took a bold, solo step when it introduced a subscription service for cellphones in December. The station said it is the first local broadcaster to bring to market a cellphone offering.

WRAL is often the first to take a crack at new technology. It went digital in 1996 and began offering news in high definition in 1999, well before other stations.

“You need a strong news presence and one you want to leverage in new ways,” said Sam Matheny, general manager for DTV Plus, the division of Capitol Broadcasting that develops new strategic technology initiatives. “Our CEO, James Goodman … wants our company to be forward-thinking and to be willing to use technology to give us every advantage.”

The mobile application offers the top seven headlines at any time and is updated every three minutes. The $3.99 monthly offering consists of text and pictures at this point but will expand to include video later this year.

The headlines come from the three core areas of local programming-news, weather and traffic. Users can get current weather conditions in their locations from the station’s Doppler radar as well as regional weather reports, five-day forecasts and severe-weather alerts. The station also added recent NCAA basketball tournament coverage to the offering, in part because the Raleigh-Durham market is home to several strong college basketball programs.

While WRAL is a lone local station voice in the mobile wilderness, it’s not afraid to bet on the future of mobile phones. Mr. Matheny wouldn’t release numbers but said usage is ahead of projections and continues to increase each month. He said he’s also not seeing any churn, suggesting subscribers are keeping the service and using it often.

“I really see it growing and changing how we as a news provider are able to reach folks,” he said. “This for us is the third screen. What this really does is give us an opportunity to reach people on the go.”

Air2Web provides the software and hardware that powers the mobile WRAL application. About a dozen local stations and a station group contacted Air2Web regarding the service after WRAL introduced its application, said Dale Gonzalez, Air2Web’s chief technology officer. He expects to have finalized a deal with at least one other station by the end of the summer.

Consumption of mobile video is rising, said Joe Laszlo, senior analyst with Jupiter Research. “We are finally reaching a point where the network technology and the kind of data speeds are making this feasible,” he said. Jupiter Research conducted a survey last month on consumer interest in video on cellphones, and 38 percent of respondents said they are interested in weather content, 27 percent in local traffic and 21 percent in news.

According to an M:Metrics study on consumption of mobile content, 13 percent of mobile subscribers reported accessing news and information via a mobile browser over a period of one month, suggesting there is a market for news content on cellphones. More than half of those people sought weather information.

WRAL’s embrace of the mobile opportunity is part of a larger trend. Verizon rolled out its mobile video service earlier this year with content from Comedy Central, NBC News, Fox, MarketWatch, AccuWeather, ESPN, Fox Sports, VH1, E! and CNN. Verizon also plans to add one-minute episodes of Fox’s “The Simple Life.”

Discovery Networks and Court TV are both developing wireless content. The Weather Channel offers on-demand clips on Sprint TV.

WRAL invests in new media because it’s a high-growth area, said John Conway, director of new media at the station. “We’ve got this core business that’s very strong and stable. We are also expanding into new areas that are growing faster. I think it adds value because you are able to use your brand [in new places],” he said.

WRAL’s new media efforts have kept it at the forefront of localism and the digital transition, said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. New tech tools help position the station with viewers as “cutting-edge,” he said.