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Networks ‘CastingAbout For New Revenue

AS THE FALL SEASON approaches,
the network-owned station groups
are making significant changes to
their digital channel game plans, including
signing up affiliate partners (ABC), honing a
group-wide strategy (NBC), or simply getting
a new channel on the air (CBS).

While multicast channels don’t yet represent
a major ratings or revenue driver for stations,
the nation’s most influential station groups
are showing that subchannels are more than
a place to stash Sanford and Son reruns or their
own rehashed news and weather. “The whole
point of Live Well Network was not to go down
the road of reruns,” says Emily Barr, president/
general manager of WLS Chicago and principal
at the ABC Owned Television Stations’ Live
Well Network. “It was how to craft a digital
network with original programming.”

First out with a digital channel in March 2009
was NBC, with New York Nonstop. Now, NBC
Owned Television Stations boasts Nonstop channels
in nine markets, representing all owned
stations except WVIT Hartford-New Haven.
(A joint California Nonstop is shared by KNTV
San Francisco, KNBC Los Angeles and KNSD
San Diego.) Each features 7 p.m. local news and
an array of local talk and entertainment shows.
Some, such as Open House and Foodies, are customized
to air in multiple markets.

NBC’s stations are poised to post a key new
job for the Nonstop network: an executive producer
to oversee all non-news programming,
who will be tasked with identifying programs
that will resonate in multiple, and perhaps all,
Nonstop markets. “It represents a more cohesive
network strategy across the group,” says
Greg Scholl, the group’s president
of local integrated media.

While ABC has been successful in
signing up affiliates for Live Well— five Belo stations started airing Live
Well last November—NBC has thus
far not taken that tack with Nonstop.
“It’s certainly an interesting avenue to
pursue,” says Scholl.

On the heels of Nonstop’s
debut was Live Well Network,
the health-minded
channel from ABC that primarily
airs programs created
within the ABC owned
group. Barr speaks of Live
Well’s multiple revenue
streams, with stations outside
the group signing on to air
Live Well. Besides a number
of Belo outlets, station partners
include the two ABC
affiliates sold to Lilly Broadcasting,
WTVG Toledo and
WJRT Flint, and another station
owned by LKK Group.
On Aug. 1, Scripps’ WXYZ Detroit debuted Live
Well, and the bulk of the Scripps group is set to
launch it Sept. 5.

ABC splits ad revenue with affiliate partners.
Live Well’s principals are speaking with several
other groups about picking up the channel. “We
should definitely have a handful of announcements
in the next week or so,” says Peggy Allen,
Live Well VP of programming.

After KTRK Houston’s shopping program
Deals debuted in July, September will mark the
debut of two shows on Live Well: the 30-minute
Live Big With Ali Vincent, starring the former Biggest
winner and produced by KABC Los
Angeles; and hour-long Steven and Chris, which
focuses on home, fashion and food and comes
out of Canada. The latter is something of an
anomaly for a group that prides itself on its DIY
approach. “We have a few acquisitions, but our
thrust is original shows,” says
Allen. “It’s an unbelievably efficient model.”

Six ABC owned stations
produce their own shows,
all of which are available in
HD, while the two others—
WABC New York and WTVD
Raleigh—contribute to the
shows as well. Affiliates
outside the group have
spoken about possibly
contributing to the programming
mix, but that
hasn’t yet come to fruition.
“Everyone’s expressed interest,
but so far no one’s
stepped forward and said,
‘Here’s a concept we want
to produce,’” says Barr,
who proudly mentions the
14,000 downloads of the
Live Well mobile app.

CBS, for its part, will
launch subchannels in
New York and Los Angeles
in late September before rolling out the
model throughout the group’s news stations.
The digital channels appear to be as much an
extension of the joint Websites representing
CBS-owned TV stations and their news and
sports radio colleagues in a market as they
are extensions of the on-air outlet. They will
feature news, sports and weather in a wheel
format, with a smattering of entertainment
programming from within the CBS family,
such as concert footage from the radio group.

The channels will be named CBS New York
Plus, CBS Los Angeles Plus, etc. Ezra Kucharz,
CBS’ local digital media president, is overseeing
the launch.

Peter Dunn, president of the CBS owned
stations, says the subchannels represent a
savvy way to turn existing content into extra
revenue. “It’s a great way to pick up business
by packaging all of our assets for new business
development,” he says.

Fox has not revealed plans for multicasting,
but is about halfway through a master control
centralization process at its owned stations,
which would help clear up space for extra
channels. The group may dedicate some of its
multicast bandwidth to mobile DTV for its Fox stations, but not for its MyNetworkTV affiliates.

Earl Arbuckle, Fox Television Stations’ VP
of engineering, says a potential digital channel
would either be a homegrown effort, with
content kicked in by the owned stations, or a
partnership with an existing net. “We’re actively
looking at it,” says Arbuckle. “The odds
are around 90-95% that we’ll do something by
the end of the year.”

The digital channel landscape is, in a word,
packed. There are Spanish-language channels
such as LATV and Estrella TV. Bounce TV will air
programming for black viewers starting Sept. 26.
There are sports networks, such as NBC’s Universal
Sports and Tuff TV. There are children’s
and health channels, such as Ion’s Qubo and Ion
Life. There are entertainment networks such as
This TV, while the classic hits category seems to
have more offerings than the Bradys had kids,
including Me-TV, Antenna TV and RTV.

Stations view the channels as a narrow-focus
content play, as opposed to the broad-appeal
programming on their main channel. Raycom
was the first station group to sign up for Bounce
TV, seeing it as a logical fit for its markets. “I look
at a lot of markets where we’re 30-plus percent
African-American,” Paul McTear, president and
CEO, recently told B&C. “We believe we haven’t
done a very good job of bringing product that is
unique and special to that audience.”

Also attractive to stations is that most digital
networks provide windows for local programming,
including breaking news when the station
sticks with major network programming
on the main channel. But typically located in
the channel placement boondocks, ratings and
revenue are hard to come by for digital channels.
Antenna TV cracks a 0.6 or 0.7 household
rating in some markets, says Sean Compton,
president of programming at Antenna parent
Tribune, while Barr says Live Well’s 0.2 and 0.3
ratings are “very modest, but growing.”

Revenue is a tough nut to crack, too; no one
would share details of their channel’s similarly
modest earning power. “It’s a lot of expense,”
says Compton. “You don’t just turn the key,
from a revenue standpoint.”

But Barr says Live Well has station staffs energized
about creating shows once again. “Everyone
got into this business for their love of
production,” she says. “It’s a tremendous opportunity
for creative types to scratch the itch.”

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