Fox Group Revamps Web Strategy

A year after the project began, the Fox-owned TV stations have finished the rollout of their new Websites. The sites are conceived as community-based businesses that stand apart from the stations, offering not only news but local information like movie times, real estate listings and classified ads.

“I believe that our Web business is the first chance we've had to build a completely different business that happens to reside inside our TV station,” says Dennis Leonard, VP/general manager of Fox's WBRC Birmingham, Ala. “This is an opportunity for a whole new revenue stream.”

The sites were created for Fox's 25 owned-and-operated stations by the Fox Interactive Media Group. Design and technical operations are centralized; the sites are branded with “My” and the market and feature a simple interface. “When it comes to Website development, less is more, if you will,” says Ron Stitt, VP of digital media and Internet operations for the Fox Television Stations. “Having tons of links on your sites is really counterproductive.”

Despite the uniform look, they will operate with a large degree of independence. Says Stitt, “Each station is very firmly in control of its local editorial.”

The rollout mirrors what other station groups have done with their affiliate sites. The CBS and NBC O&Os overhauled their stations' sites in the past year—CBS through CBS Digital Media, NBC with Internet Broadcasting Systems.

Prior to the redesign, which started when Dennis Swanson arrived at Fox as president of station operations last fall, the stations designed their own basic sites. Leonard says WBRC's was actually designed by a local student as a summer project. “We've gone from an extremely elementary point of view,” he says, “to what we believe is going to be the quintessential Web business in broadcasting.”

Localism is core to the strategy. The outlets serve their community with news, weather, sports and traffic updates, as well as local directories and classifieds aimed at the market share owned by newspapers and Craigslist. “The previous generation of Websites was more promotional,” says Stitt. “The current generation is media properties in their own right and designed to be run as businesses.”

The sites might couple with News Corp. sibling MySpace, the top social-networking site, to offer local services. Comments Leonard, “There are synergies there we can draw on, just as there are other synergies in the company with the Fox Broadcasting Co., 20th Television and other entities within News Corp.”

The stations have paired with MySpace before, their sites offering streaming video-on-demand (VOD) of Fox programs last fall. It's expected that VOD will remain on the sites, although it hasn't been an overwhelming success. Allocating the bandwidth to stream entire episodes of shows is expensive, and Fox is still figuring out how to turn that into revenue.

Fox executives aren't saying how user-generated video might figure in, although consultants say it's a no-brainer for Web properties featuring local news. “It's not about finding the best videos; it's about allowing people to share information one to one,” says Internet news consultant Steve Safran. “If you can aggregate that in your community, that's a terrific success.”

The stations are rolling out an array of features—starting with breaking-news video and adding traffic and weather cams. So far, viewers seem to appreciate the efforts. “We've gone from maybe 100,000 page viewers on our best month to well into the millions now,” Leonard says. WBRC was one of the first Fox stations to launch its site, coinciding with the return of American Idol star Taylor Hicks to his Birmingham hometown in May.

Leonard hints that Fox has more Web tricks up its sleeve. He won't share details but believes it'll give the O&Os the upper hand: “When our plan rolls out, it's going to be one more giant separator between us and what other TV stations and newspapers are doing.”

Paige Albiniak

Contributing editor Paige Albiniak has been covering the business of television for nearly 25 years. She is a longtime contributor to Next TV, Broadcasting + Cable and Multichannel News. She concurrently serves as editorial director for entertainment marketing association Promax. She has written for such publications as TVNewsCheck, The New York Post, Variety, CBS Watch and more. Albiniak was B+C’s Los Angeles bureau chief from September 2002 to 2004, and an associate editor covering Congress and lobbying for the magazine in Washington, D.C., from January 1997-September 2002.