Mobile a big opportunity for local TV, but many stations still lag behind

By Cory Bergman 

Over the last few years, local TV stations have quickly embraced social media, gaining a big head start over most of their newspaper competitors on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Now even bigger challenges have arrived: mobile is taking over the media world, and there’s a huge battle brewing for local TV viewers’ attention. At the same time, most newspapers have switched to pay meters, opening up an opportunity for stations to entice those readers with “mobile best” products. But as I explained to local TV marketers gathered at the Promax BDA Station Summit on Thursday, many local stations are lagging behind.

As an example, let’s look at the Denver market. One of the biggest drivers of mobile success is user reviews, but three stations are struggling with 1 and 2 star reviews for their apps, dramatically inhibiting downloads. Two stations were not appearing in iTunes search results at all when you search for their digital brands due to bad SEO (and branding confusion). And one station’s site took nearly 20 seconds to load on an iPhone because it lacked a mobile site.

To be “mobile best” among local market competitors, mobile sites and apps must be simple and fast, as well as anticipate the needs of those using them. For example, when a tornado touched down near Denver International Airport, it’s a safe bet than nearly everyone coming to a Denver news site or app will be looking for 1) news of the tornado 2) a photo or video of it 3) word of any airport delays and 4) the weather forecast. However, some mobile content management systems — or the lack thereof — make it difficult to prominently assemble these elements on the fly.

(An infographic of my speech, whipped up by ImageThink‘s Lloyd Dangle as I was talking.)

By next year, most TV stations are on track to attract more traffic on their mobile sites and apps than the desktop. While senior TV group leaders explained at the Station Summit how mobile is a top priority, many stations aren’t covering basic blocking-and-tackling. (Interestingly, when the audience asked the panel if they actively use social media, they responded, “No, but our kids do!”) They are, however, bullish about TV Everywhere, which will enable users to watch live, locally-branded TV on their mobile devices.

However, I worry that newscasts — which constitute the overwhelming programming investment and cultural know-how of local stations — will not translate well beyond the confines of live TV, especially outside breaking news. In other words, newscasts don’t Netflix, and live streams have never performed well. I think the jury is still out whether a significant number of people will tune into a local newscast on a mobile device — live or otherwise — outside of a breaking news event. Newscasts are also under-performers driving organic social conversations, limiting their tune-in potential. They’re also very limited in ad integration potential.

That’s not to say that TV Everywhere and mobile DTV aren’t important as logical extensions of linear programming. And local TV should continue to aggressively cover breaking news on all platforms, including their newscasts. But when viewers turn on their TVs or open their tablets to peruse nearly limitless on-demand viewing options — and scan recommendations from their friends on Facebook or Twitter — local TV needs to play in that space, too.

Consolidation certainly helps, giving larger groups more leverage and resources to acquire syndicated content. But syndication isn’t the savior. Stations must learn how to reinvent local programming around original, shareworthy video that’s optimized for on-demand consumption on any screen. New formats and new brands, created through a prototyping process at a much lower cost, fueled by new talent that have never touched a TV newscast.

Where’s the money in this new on-demand, mobile-social world? Commercial spots and pre-rolls are just a piece of it. I believe a local station’s growth potential lies in its ability to leverage that same creative ability to create original, shareworthy video for their advertisers, springboarded with the TV station’s own distribution. And integrating it into existing branded video, too, tying it to traditional spending on TV.

One of my favorite quotes, which ended my Station Summit presentation, is from investor Chris Dixon — who was paraphrasing “Innovator’s Dilemma” author Clayton Christensen: “The next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a toy.” Creating prototypes on YouTube for a few hundred views may seem like a toy, but it’s an important starting point for an industry that’s facing both unprecedented challenges and unique opportunities.