12 to Watch: Jonathan Leess

Jan 29, 2007  •  Post A Comment

The business of local television has become a tough one in the past few years. But the CBS stations group found a way to remain relevant in the digital age.

CBS did that by stuffing the Web sites of its 16 owned-and-operated stations with about eight to 10 hours of fresh video each day. That meant digitizing every news story and entire newscasts for the Internet as well as creating Web-only newscasts.

After implementing that “Always On” strategy in 2005, the group reaped the benefits last year. In 2006, online ad revenues for the 16 stations quadrupled, while in most cases the traffic and video streams tripled.

Last year, the CBS-owned sites struck a syndication deal with Yahoo to distribute news clips from the local stations to Yahoo’s news page, extending distribution of CBS’s local news programming to Yahoo’s viewers and marking one of the first deals in the growing online video syndication business.

Leess, president and general manager of the CBS Television Stations Digital Media Group, is the architect of the group’s digital strategies. He is quick to point out that the success of “Always On” comes from a team approach at CBS.

That team will face a tougher task this year as it launches new sites for the 17 CW-affiliated stations and independent stations in the group. The CW sites present a unique set of challenges because the network is one year old and most of the stations don’t have the same local news cachet that the CBS stations have.

The key is to ensure the sites maintain a local flavor.

“It needs to be absolutely focused on local. That is relevant to the consumers,” he said. The overhaul for those sites will include more user-generated content opportunities and a strong social networking component to reflect the younger demographic the network draws, as well as broadcast content.

He’s up for the challenge. Mr. Leess is an “out-of-the-box thinker,” said Bill Cella, vice chairman of DraftFCB, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies.

Mr. Cella has known Mr. Leess since they worked together at ABC in the early 1980s. “He’s spent the past several years exploring the digital space, so he’s positioned to become a strong spokeperson on the benefits in the digital world,” Mr. Cella said.

In 2007 Mr. Leess will need to keep the momentum going for the CBS sites. “We are working on rich media packages and better targeting for the advertisers,” Mr. Leess said. The sites will begin offering ad options that go beyond banner ads and spots that precede video content. He also said he plans to strike more syndication deals for the stations’ content.

Shepherding the TV stations into the Internet era has brought its own set of growing pains. “We had to have newsrooms change their habits of breaking stories and holding stories till 5 p.m., and use the broadband distribution system of wireless and Internet. You are really changing the mind-set,” he said.

He also oversaw the jump into wireless video content the stations made last year to offer monthly subscription packages for news video on the mobile phone.