NBC Stations Shift Strategy

NBC Universal is overhauling its operations to recast its stations as 24/7, multiplatform news outlets, not simply TV stations airing newscasts at set times of the day.

NBC is re-engineering WNBC New York’s 30 Rock digs into a “content center” that will allow the station to distribute programming to traditional newscasts, the Web and the 24-hour cable news channel it plans to launch on its digital tier in November.

“We’re moving from a show-based culture to a more story-based culture,” NBC Local Media Division president John Wallace said. “We’re focusing on the story running across our various platforms.”

Starting at NBC as a page 20 years ago, Wallace has been hard at work remaking NBC’s 10 stations. In November, he renamed the NBC owned-and-operated stations group NBC Local Media Division. It seemed to some to be window dressing at the time, but the rebranding presaged Wallace’s plans to remake the TV-station model into one where stations serve their communities as round-the-clock, multimedia content providers.

“Our business is going through a period of tremendous change,” Wallace told staffers in an internal memo when NBC put WTVJ Miami and WVIT Hartford, Conn., on the block in March. “We’re in the process of re-engineering the way we think, shifting our focus from a traditional stations business to becoming full-service local media production centers.”

Indeed, it’s a difficult time for the broadcast business as stations struggle to find their role on the Web. The CBS-owned stations laid off around 200 in late March, Young Broadcasting announced that it was dismissing 11% of its work force earlier this year and Barrington Broadcasting is laying off 8% in the coming months.

NBC is neither the first nor the largest broadcaster to rethink and rebrand its TV stations. Gannett Broadcasting, for one, began transforming stations into “information centers” last summer, and it will eventually have the model in place for all 23 outlets. “The idea is to stop thinking of the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. news as the thrust of our newsroom’s day,” a Gannett spokesperson said. “We have to be more nimble and think of ourselves as a 24/7 source of local news in our communities.”

News is major business in New York, where stations brought in more than $1.5 billion last year, according to BIA Financial Networks. WNBC led the pack with $340 million.

The tristate area has a variety of hyperlocal news options on cable, including Time Warner Cable’s New York 1 News in New York and Cablevision Systems’ News 12 channels in the suburbs. WNBC’s as-yet-untitled news channel, which will be headed up by former WRC Washington, D.C., vice president of news Vickie Burns, will focus on the entire DMA.

NY1 regional VP and general manager Steve Paulus said the new channel will have an uphill battle. “WNBC is a formidable news organization, but they’ll find that [24/7 cable news] is a little trickier than they thought,” he added, pointing to NY1’s channel location (it’s on channel 1) and 15-year-plus head start.

Once WNBC’s content center and news channel are up and running, Wallace will look to implement similar models in other markets where NBC has stations and get the next batch of newsroom staffers on board.

He said the attitude seemed mostly positive after announcing what he called the “shift in philosophy” to WNBC staff last week. “They were seemingly optimistic,” he added. “It’s a major culture change, so obviously, there’s going to be some nervousness, but we’re committed to this.”

Michael Malone

Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.