From mobile to taking on newspaper paywalls, 3 big moves for local TV in 2013

By Cory Bergman 

Local television remains a good business, but most station execs agree that tough, uncertain times lie ahead. As we enter 2013, it’s the ideal opportunity for TV station groups to make bold moves to invest in future growth — or just protect the current bottom line. Here’s my crack at the top three:

1. Triple investment in mobile

“Mobile is huge,” everyone admits, but I don’t think we fully realize the revolution that’s upon us. If current trends continue, mobile will not only soar beyond the desktop (mobile already runs 4X over desktop where I work), but challenge TV news in reach in the next several years, as well. Desktop growth has been flat for most TV stations, and soon that traffic will begin to decline as consumption shifts to devices.

Mobile is just as big as a threat as it is an opportunity. Advertising CPMs are a fraction of the desktop. I can watch an increasing number of network TV shows on any device in my house — without going through my local affiliates. And just about everyone I know no longer looks to local TV brands for the weather (unless it’s a big storm) because it’s built into the start screen of our iPhones and Samsungs.

We’ve seen some promising mobile experiments in local TV — for example, the coalition of local television groups working with ConnecTV’s social TV app and on mobile DTV — but I worry it’s far from enough. Most local media companies still outsource their core mobile development to third parties, enforcing a templatized approach across their brands. Just like the early days of the web, this restricts innovation. It’s time to bring your core mobile development in house, either by buying that third-party development house or hiring up on your own. (I still like the partnership/coalition approach to larger, more complex endeavors.)

Yes, it’s expensive, and that’s the biggest challenge of all. The best new mobile products don’t merely display information; they solve problems (both for users and advertisers alike). They have to be good or consumers will shun them. Experiences must translate elegantly across different devices. That makes mobile development labor-intensive and risky. You not only need enough resources to build your core products, but experiment on top of that.

Hence the triple investment. This is a bigger deal than you think.

2. Capitalize on newspapers putting up paywalls and meters

A paid content revolution is underway at newspapers across America: 360 of them are expected to charge for content — some as paywalls, more as metered content like — by the end of the year. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize this is an unusual opportunity for stations to go after audiences frustrated with the new restrictions.

Newspaper folks will be quick to point out they produce a higher quality and frequency of online coverage. This is certainly the case in most markets, but local TV stations can attract a larger share by stepping up coverage a notch and marketing themselves as a free and everywhere alternative.

Here’s in Boise going straight for the Idaho Statesman’s jugular in this 30-second spot:

A few ideas: A) diversify coverage by curating the best stories in the market (link the competition!) and cutting deals with indie pubs/blogs to host a subset of their content B) go deep in sports opinion witing — a big traffic driver for newspapers — by contracting with local sports blogs or even hard-core fans; C) redesign your sites to be lighter, more responsive and a bit more “newspapery” while still showcasing video D) avoid over-populating home pages/screens with crime stories, and tone down headlines and ledes a notch E) make it just downright simple and convenient to access coverage on mobile and social.

You get the idea. This is not about replicating the newspaper’s coverage or design, but providing “good enough” coverage across a broader array of content and platforms. In most cases, this will require an modest injection of new web staff to pull all these content pieces together and produce them in a compelling fashion. Then follow it with a big on-air push and a “switch pitch” surge from the sales team to pick off the best online advertisers from the paper.

3. Create an indie video startup

As convenient viewing opportunities explode — Netflix, Hulu, smarter DVRs, cable/satellite tablet apps, Xbox, etc. — local TV stations are in a poor position to compete for attention. The vast majority of local TV programming is live news, which translates poorly to on-demand playback.

Stations need to create more original programming that people will seek out and watch on their schedules. Local programming that people will tweet about, that stands above the avalanche of original national content. That can be distributed on new platforms. And this isn’t another newscast or talk show.

I propose creating an indie video startup at the group or station level that experiments with digital-first, social-savvy programming. (If this sounds familiar, I proposed the same thing two years ago.) By startup, I mean a small (3-4) group of people who are carved out from the organization and report straight up to top management. Hire people outside of the newsroom: small production houses, local YouTube producers, etc. Give them low-cost gear and a long runway to experiment with digital, shareable shows. Create a concept, distribute via social media, see what happens. Repeat. The concepts that resonate are given a chance to grow into digital distribution, and potentially, turn into a linear show, as well.

This is not about creating “broadcast quality” shows, but shareable, mobile-friendly “infotainment” or entertainment that will keep local TV relevant in the new world of ubiquitous video.

All three of these options aren’t new. They all cost money and require buy-in from top management, but that’s how meaningful change happens on your terms. For inspiration, I would recommend re-reading Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma as well as his thoughts about disruption and journalism. For more insight on the mobile revolution, I recently wrote about why journalists are underestimating it. And please offer your comments below…