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Networks 'Casting About 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 Loser 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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