The New Digital Channels Being Broadcast by Your Local Stations Could Be TV’s New Wasteland

Nov 3, 2009

Do you watch any of the new local digital channels?

No, neither do I.

Welcome to television’s new wasteland of local digital multicasting. Now there are seven zillion more channels and still the same complaint, “all these channels and nothing to watch.” More accurately, there’s little worth watching on these new digital channels.

In June, local stations finally made the long talked about – more like ballyhooed – transition from analog to digital. Along with the transition, stations were allocated several digital channels where they could – I emphasize could – multicast different programs using the same spectrum space it takes for one analog channel. Simply explained, a local station, say one broadcasting on Channel 4, can also program channels 4.1., 4.2., 4.3. and 4.4. Suffice it to say, whatever digital magic makes it happen, it’s pretty cool. But pretty cool to a point.

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.”

You’ll find some new options on the local tiers, including Estrella, the 24-hour Spanish-language network. There’s always RetroTV and THIStv, if you’re interested in going to nostalgia heaven or rerun hell. But some stations are using the channels to simply repurpose newscasts, regurgitating them into different life-forms of softball feature and lifestyle programs, e.g. WNBC’s gushy feature and lifestyle effort: “New York Nonstop.”

The television editor at the New York Daily News dubbed its launch this way, “New York Nonstop…feels a heck of a lot more like a channel for people staying in hotel than something for city regulars.” Ouch! In fairness to the station, at least they’re trying. Since its softball debut, the NBC station folks have been tinkering and changing. But some other stations are taking the easy way out, loading up their digital tier with the likes of AccuWeather. Just what we need, more local weathercasts.

Commissioner Michael Copps told NPR’s “All Things Considered” the new offerings are a far cry from what broadcasters could be doing with the new channels, "If this spectrum is going to be used just for home shopping and Doppler radar, it’s falling far short of the purpose that it could be serving." Copps went on to say, "It has the capacity to represent local issues, local politics, local music, local religious and cultural diversity."

Flashback to 1999. I recall a group meeting in West Palm of the newly reconstituted Hearst-Pulitzer broadcast group. The buzz and discussion throughout the meetings was about the brave new digital world, horizontal integration of this, and vertical integration of that. It was a vision for the new media real estate to come and how digital integration would work. It was big dreams and high hopes for the digital future.

Flash forward 10 years, and much of what was discussed at those Hearst meetings has come to pass. Station websites, wireless and mobile applications have changed the “how” and “when” of delivering content. But stations are still struggling to figure out the “what” to offer on the digital real estate. A few groups like Hearst, Raycom, and the ABC O&O stations (I hear they’re working on programming health & wellness content) – and some stations are working on programming options for these new channels. But to date the majority of digital offerings across the country are pretty thin.

Some local stations are sticking to where they have the biggest investment, local news – using their digital tier for extended coverage. KOLD-TV in Tucson 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 multi-alarm 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 out 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 in Savannah, Georgia. 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 hyper-local 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 Jim 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 sales people don’t want to sell it, because there are no big commissions involved. Sales people don’t make money, and the station doesn’t make money off the channels. So there’s no motivation. If you put paid programming on one of the digital channels, the producers balk because no one is watching. They can’t sell their products. It comes down to a concept sell, supported ‘on the come’ by an advertiser. If you’re lucky, your approach is sorta’ like the old radio dollar-a-holler sell,” a few bucks for each mention.

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 hyper-local as it gets.

Maybe the answer to cracking the digital programming code is: keep it simple – keep it hyper-local. As Petrovich reminded me, WGN 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 email 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.

As FCC Commissioner told NPR, "now that we put American consumers through this trauma of getting right with the technology…now what are we going to do with it?"#


  1. Already seeing the lack of creativity – more to the point I’m sure, lack of capital and resources – for digital programming here in Rochester, NY. NBC affiliate uses digital sub to broadcast 24-hour weather radar (Holiday Yule Log, anybody?). ABC re-broadcasts cable sister-station and CBS and Fox (who already have a weird local news-sharing partnership) aren’t doing anything.

  2. At WFYI, the PBS affiliate in Indianapolis, we’re using our digital channels to expand our mission to educate and inform, as most PBS stations are.
    We carry the Spanish language network, V-me on our 20.2. During the day, we carry APT’s Create service on 20.3 and repurpose our local productions in prime time.
    Indiana’s Public Broadcasting Stations are also in the process of forming a statewide network for our digital channels. This network would feature all locally-produced programs provided by all of the member stations.
    So, we’re offering the same high-quality programs Hoosiers come to expect from WFYI…just much more of it.

  3. I watch RetroTV because I am OLD and am tired of the new habit of visual and grizzly “blood and guts”. Andy Griffith is no sillier than the current sitcoms. Magnum and Rockford are no dumber than the current detectives. “They” tried to eliminate, then resurrect “Ghost Whisperer” – unsuccessfully as far as I’m concerned.

  4. Hyper-localism is a great way to use these digital sideband channels. In the late 70’s throughout the 80’s, local programs took root in the form of cooperatives such as EVENING / PM MAGAZINE. This type of local magazine-style programming combined national stories with local segments and it was considered a worthy model for local spin-offs for morning shows, news features and community-oriented programming. But it sadly fell victim to media mergers & corporate consolidation.
    If the owners of local stations want to create a value that local audiences appreciate, they have no choice but to dust off the successful concepts of the past and modify them to fit the needs of broadcasting today. Otherwise local stations will simply continue to become marginalized by cable, satellite, IPTV and of course the worldwide web.

  5. Left unsaid in this piece is that those additional subchannels don’t come for free – they come at the cost of significant degradation in the picture quality of the main channel.
    The result is for several stations with two or more subchannels the picture quality on the main channel is barely above standard definition, soft, and prone to macroblocking at the slightest movement. KUSA in Denver is one good example of this, with their picture quality having gone down considerably ever since they added a third subchannel for Universal Sports.
    I can’t believe after spending the money to upgrade their plants to generate and pass HD signals, stations don’t realize that what viewers are seeing on their HDTVs as penetration of the new sets increase is a fuzzy picture not much better than 480i.
    It’s truly sad to realize that for those of us around then, the best HD picture to be seen from many stations will have been sent in 2002.
    Why can’t stations “use the technology” to send the higher resolution content viewers THOUGHT they would be getting?
    I’m sorry to read more PBS affiliates are getting into the subchannel business as well; the PBS HD feed used to be one of the most beautiful in the business, and still is for the few who can still see it.
    For the rest, programs like Ken Burns’ National Park Series will look better even on SD DVD than it did on the main channel of PBS stations with more than one subchannel.

  6. I have a big dish and since everything went digital I lost C-SPAN completely. I’m forced to by packages with programming I never watch and can’t get what used to be free. It’s awful!

  7. I could not disagree more!! I am in arural area ant over the air reception was poor. With the digital siginal i get excellent pictures and I can integrate the air channels with my dish network system for reception throughout the house. The extra channels in our area include local weather , kids programming and movies. All much better than expected

  8. I could not disagree more!! I am in a rural area and over the air reception was poor. With the digital siginal I get excellent pictures and I can integrate the air channels with my dish network system for reception throughout the house. The extra channels in our area include local weather , kids programming and movies. All much better than expected

  9. Instead of coming up with additional programming, why don’t they just duplicate what is on the main channel, but time shift it by two hours? (With the exception of sports programming.)
    This would help retain live viewers. Sure a network would effectively be competing with itself, but they got Neilsen to count DVR viewing up to 5 days later, why not petition them to combine re-airings that occur withing 23 hours of the original airing?

  10. 11/16
    Mr Petner,
    You missed the point.
    The dynamics about multicasting are two fold:
    1) It gives the people who do not have the penchant or money to buy cable service a larger variety of content than just the over-the-air primary channels. Multicast channels are free.
    2) Give it a chance to grow. Time will weed out what works and what does not. I believe people should applaude the new content experiments. If nothing were being done, there would be a different type of criticism.
    This new market could use some creativity and as investment markets become healthier we will see it. I believe Mr. Arnold’s actions are very creative and it is people like him that will find the correct mix of national and local content to put these new channels on the map.
    Thanks, Mike

  11. Let the viewers vote for the content!
    Use Text to TV and viewers are selecting the content, which then plays automatically. That’s the solution for local.
    indigo.tv was doing just that live TV in NYC on RCN cable. Ask them how to do this.
    Local independent music programs was requested and indigo.tv delivered. They had local NYC bands on their live show and viewers asked them questions and voted for best videos by Text messages-Live on screen with graphics.

  12. I read about this on another website and didn’t see the point, but this post makes it easier to understand. Thanks!

  13. What happened to channel 38-2 music? It was nice to have it on local and sure miss it. Has it been changed to a different local channel or do you plan to put it back on if not?

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