Small Screens, Big Battle

For all the talk about sparkling 60-inch flat screens and 4K television technology at the recent National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas, local broadcasters know their future will play out on a much smaller stage—namely, on the smartphones and iPads in the hands of users traipsing through their markets. As station executives continue to search for the best way to remain relevant to the next generation of consumer, their digital directors are experimenting with an array of content on a range of devices that will give them the best shot of connecting with those users, thwarting the dreaded live-streaming foes and keeping the aging business that is local broadcast TV vital for many years to come.

Mobile digital television (DTV) plans shared in Vegas earlier this month showed some progress, though few station chiefs can boast that more than a handful of users get their broadcast signals on their handhelds. Instead, stations are finding an easier route to the devices through live streaming. Raycom, for one, recently concluded such a rollout at its 32 news-producing stations—streaming local news to iPhones, iPads and the like. “It’s so important to get your news product out there,” says Pat LaPlatney, VP of digital media at Raycom. “We continue to experiment until a clear business model develops, whether it’s mobile digital television or live streaming or [online TV app] Syncbak.”

Broadcasters frequently trumpet that their one-to-many distribution is a more efficient use of spectrum than wireless. When cellphone communications got jammed up following the fatal Boston Marathon bombings last week, broadcasters believe the need for a more dependable medium for reaching the masses with timely news became even more apparent. “That was Exhibit A as to why we need live, local mobile DTV in every device on every person in America,” says Dennis Wharton, NAB executive VP of communications.

At a time when stations are witnessing their mobile traffic surpassing that of their main station website, coming up with the winning formula on these platforms is crucial. Overall mobile local advertising revenue is expected to be $9.1 billion in 2017, according to BIA/ Kelsey—a startling increase from the $1.2 billion spent in that arena in 2012. Local TV brands enjoy considerable goodwill among consumers in their markets— as a trusted voice in times of severe weather, for example. The challenge is making a station brand meaningful for a digital native with a cornucopia of apps, social media options and games at their fingertips (Spotify, IHeartRadio, Vevo, Tumblr, the list goes on) and little, if any, connection to a legacy TV station.

“If you’re not there, you’re going to lose them,” says Jack Myers, chairman of Myers Media Business Network and author of Hooked Up, a book about digital’s growing impact on youth and society. “To maintain loyalty, stations need to develop content for mobile that’s not just streaming [their signal]. So much media consumption is on mobile— they have no choice but to be there.”

Dyle-ing Up New Stations

At the NAB Show back in 2010, the nation’s largest station groups, including Fox, Belo and Gannett, announced their involvement in a consortium called Pearl Mobile DTV designed to bring mobile DTV to the masses. At the time, NAB president/CEO Gordon Smith said around 150 stations would be on the air with mobile DTV—a 24/7 simulcast of a station’s signal across broadcast spectrum to portable devices—by the end of 2010.

It certainly looked like the killer app required for broadcasters to earn a toehold in the digital media landscape. Three years later, Pearl Mobile is now the Mobile Content Venture, and operates the mobile TV platform called Dyle. An early April announcement from MCV said 116 stations in 39 markets are equipped for mobile TV.

There’s also a second group venture called the Mobile500 Alliance, comprised of 50 smaller broadcasters, including Nexstar, LIN and Gray Television. (MCV and Mobile 500 have a combined 140 stations lit up for mobile, according to an MCV rep.) While talk in Vegas of increased collaboration between the two consortiums was encouraging, several group leaders privately say the pace of the mobile DTV rollout has been frustrating. Some lament that ABC and CBS, which are not investors in the Dyle initiative, are taking a wait-and-see approach when the other nets have thrown their weight behind the efforts. Others express chagrin that broadcasters, adamant about making a convincing case to the FCC that they need every sliver of the broadcast spectrum for mobile TV, have not nearly tapped the full potential of the medium.

“It’s definitely frustrating—I thought we’d be a lot further along,” says Bob Prather, president and COO at Gray Television. “I think we’re making progress, but it’s just slow.”

Yet there is movement. In early April, Sinclair announced it will deploy mobile TV in 10 markets over the next six months. At NAB, Dyle shared plans to expand to Baltimore, Jacksonville and Salt Lake City—and said the service now reaches 57% of the U.S. For the first time, mobile TV-equipped devices were for sale at the NAB Show store—phones and tablets airing live local TV, and plug-in “dongles” that bring such capability to portable devices. Anne Schelle, senior advisor to the NAB on mobile TV, says that as far as introducing potentially-game changing technologies go, the Mobile Content Venture has done just fine: “It’s here, and it’s commercial,” Schelle says.

Yet it was streaming company Aereo that commanded the lion’s share of attention at the NAB Show, when News Corp. president/ COO Chase Carey said his company would consider a subscription model for its Fox broadcast network if Aereo—suddenly less popular in Vegas than a dealer with blackjack— prevailed in court.

The over-the-top (OTT) competitors are making inroads with consumers. The Syncbak app received raves from several highlevel broadcasters in Vegas. Aereo, backed by former broadcast chief Barry Diller and currently available in New York, hopes to offer streamed TV signals—which it does not pay broadcasters to transmit—in 22 markets by the end of summer. Aereo CEO Chet Kanojia suggests local news is a centerpiece of the mobile video lineup. “Local news, to me, has great pull—people consume as much news as they can, provided you make it relevant,” Kanojia says. “Stations have a tremendous opportunity to serve their consumer base. You just have to get it to them on their terms.”

Broadcasters say ramping up their own mobile TV and live streaming efforts would marginalize the unsanctioned streaming outfits. “We have to continue to push the envelope and go more and more into mobile,” says Vincent Sadusky, LIN Media president and CEO. “That’s the way you kill Aereo in the marketplace.”

Swimming Up-Stream

While the offerings are not as rich, live streaming has proven far easier to get into local users’ hands. Since the Scripps stations’ splashy announcement in fall 2011 about offering live local apps, a range of stations has moved ahead on such missions. Stations’ streaming may lack the network and syndicated programming of mobile TV, but local news on smartphones and iPads represents a key differentiator in the markets the stations serve. “We’ve done it, and no one else in the market has attempted it yet,” says Mark Platte, news director at KGMB-KHNL Honolulu. “If you’re out at the mall at 5 p.m. on a Sunday and can’t get to a TV set, there it is, in beautiful HD quality. It’s the next big thing.”

Stations need every advantage when it comes to sustaining their relevance. Local TV remains a top news source for Americans, according to a recent Pew Research study, with almost half of respondents polled saying they watch regularly. But the numbers are shrinking— mostly among young people who may not inherit their parents’ habit of watching TV news as they enter the next stage of adulthood. The Pew study showed that regular local news watchers dipped from 54% to 48% from 2006 to 2012, but the drop among young people—42% to 28% for those 18- 29—was more like a freefall.

A sharp mobile strategy may stem the slide. Some 79% of people 25-44 own or use a smartphone, according to a study by Frank N. Magid Associates, while 71% of those 13+ own a smartphone and/or a tablet. Around 80% of users seek out weather information— a TV station lodestone—on their devices, a substantially higher number than those who play games (69%), listen to music (68%) or even engage in social media (74%). According to the Magid survey, 72% of smartphone users look for news on their handhelds—and local TV and newspapers beat their national competition by a 2 to 1 margin in terms of trust, reliability and credibility.

“Local brands still have a strong position in the local market,” says Tom Godfrey, executive director for mobile strategy at Magid. “The data supports that they will remain strong.”

Converting that goodwill to mobile engagement is challenging. Strictly simulcasting the station feed is not enough to keep people engaged on the go. One-minute programs, Twitter-like news flashes and various “gameification” efforts work way better than a staid 5 p.m. newscast, say the mobile mavens. “You need a digital director to program directly to and build formats dedicated to the mobile platform,” says Myers.

Getting network programming on board would certainly sweeten stations’ value proposition. The issue was Topic A when affiliate boards met earlier this month during the NAB show. “Collectively we are trying to figure out how it’s going to work on multiple screens,” says Dave Boylan, ABC affiliates board chairman. “There’s a good attitude.”

Storm Stories

Stations’ mobile content is never more valued than when severe weather strikes. New York stations were lauded for their mobile TV offerings during Hurricane Sandy; when electricity was down, mobile apps offered far more dynamic updates than a wind-up emergency radio.

The usage bump from extreme weather can extend beyond the storm and its aftermath. “When people find your stream because they lost power, all of a sudden the stream becomes one of the everyday things they look for,” says Bob Furlong, VP and general manager at WPMT in York, Pa.

For his part, LaPlatney was checking out the latest mobile TV and live streaming offerings on the vast NAB Show floor in Vegas, seeing what will help spark adoption and engagement within the Raycom group. Beside the 32 stations currently live streaming, Raycom is looking to build on the six that offer mobile TV, starting with WOIO Cleveland this quarter. Raycom and other broadcast groups know the time is now to expand, and enrich, their mobile video slate.

“The key is to continue the momentum and have more and more stations involved until there’s critical mass in each market,” LaPlatney says. “It’s incumbent on us to be there and make sure our product is as visible as any on these new platforms.”

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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.