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Election Content Explodes

Nov 6, 2006  •  Post A Comment

During the 2004 presidential election, local stations dabbled on the Internet, testing Web-only broadcasts, exclusive online coverage and streaming candidate debates.

That was before the era of online video took off with gusto earlier this year.

This political go-round, many local TV stations have taken the full plunge and turned their Web sites into true secondary channels, immersing their online outlets in election coverage.

“Now we are doing election coverage online like we used to do on TV-live shots, studio shots. The Web is a channel to us,” said Steve Schwaid, senior VP of news and programming for the NBC-owned station group.

Groups including the NBC-owned and CBS-owned stations and Hearst-Argyle say they have been leveraging their URLs to offer extensive coverage of the political campaigns and Election Day itself, which is Tuesday.

The online focus makes sense for many reasons. Smart stations have been shoring up their Web sites in the past few years as audiences defect to the Internet. They’ve been looking to gain ad revenue online, and to do that broadcasters need a deep well of online content. The CBS-owned station group, for instance, overhauled its Web sites over the past year and has quadrupled both the number of video streams it provides and its online revenue since December. This year, the 16 CBS station sites expect to stream more than 50 million videos.

In addition, news remains the most popular form of TV content online, according to a study released last month by the Consumer Internet Barometer, produced by The Conference Board and TNS. The report found that more than 62 percent of online TV watchers check out news, compared with nearly 50 percent who watch entertainment.

On Election Day, the CBS-owned stations plan to expand on the coverage they offer on-air by streaming candidates’ speeches online, many in their entirety. Local broadcasters must pick and choose which speeches to carry on-air, but the nearly limitless inventory of the Web makes it possible to carry nearly all concession and acceptance speeches online, said Lane Beauchamp, managing editor for the CBS Television Stations Digital Media Group.

Also on Election Day, some stations will stream exclusive webcasts. CBS-owned KCNC-TV in Denver plans to offer an online webcast for four hours, starting at 1 p.m. and featuring a voters roundtable. Other stations’ online coverage will expand after the polls close in their markets.

“This is the first year with this big and concerted an effort,” Mr. Beauchamp said. “This is a biggie, with so many national races at stake.”

Also, all the stations sites include voters’ guides to state and local races. The site for KOVR-TV in Sacramento, for instance, includes 183 races and 531 candidates, while the guide for WBBM-TV in Chicago includes information on 685 races and more than 1,300 candidates. Viewers can go online and compare candidates who have submitted answers in response to a series of questions the station created for each race. This is the first year the sites have offered such a resource, Mr. Beauchamp said.

The group’s CBS station in Boston, WBZ-TV, and other stations have carried a handful of debates on-air and online. At the end of the on-air coverage, WBZ points viewers to the Web for post-debate analysis from the station’s lead anchor and political analysts.

The NBC-owned stations have developed specialized Web content to cover the campaigns and Election Day. “Online is truly becoming a world of its own,” Mr. Schwaid said.

The group’s Chicago station, WMAQ-TV, plans to offer live streams on its site from various candidate headquarters on Election Day. “They will continually switch to different streams,” he said.

In addition, many of the stations will include anchored webcasts throughout the day that cover the elections in more depth than on-air can. “This is the ultimate panacea for a news director,” Mr. Schwaid said. “You have one of the biggest nights of the year. You want to be on the air telling people what’s going on, and you have a segment in the audience that wants to watch it and a segment that wants to watch regular programming.”

WRC-TV in Washington plans to offer a “video box” on its site, allowing users to upload their own videos and comments about the election. The Philadelphia station, WCAU-TV, plans to include all the concession speeches online.

The Hearst-Argyle group has also been aggressive in its online coverage as part of its broader “Commitment 2006” plan to cover local politics. Several stations have simulcast debates on-air and on the Internet. Others ran debates live on the Web as they were being taped for broadcast. In all cases, the debates were either made available for later viewing on the Web or edited into categories for easier online viewing. Some stations hosted live post-debate analyses online.

“Our stations are using the Web site to solicit voter questions for debates,” said Candy Altman, VP of news for Hearst-Argyle. “Many will use the Web on election night to provide supplemental coverage of local races.”