When TV Stations Venture Online
Local news is key, some executives say.
By Lou Prato
Lou Prato is a former radio and television news director and a broadcast journalism professor at Penn State University.
Local TV station officials who want to make their Web sites artistic and financial successes should check out what's happenining in Minneapolis, Las Vegas and Raleigh.
WCCO, KLAS and WRAL are not the only stations with successful Web sites, but the three are innovators with a growing reputation within the Internet's TV news community. Each has a different approach to luring consumers, and two of the operations say they are profitable.
WCCO's Channel 4000 may be unusual because it is produced by an outside company run by the station's onetime news director, Reid Johnson. International Broadcasting Systems (IBS) produces the Web site in partnership with the Minneapolis station, but all the editorial and sales personnel are employed by IBS, not WCCO.
The Internet news staff of five works out of the WCCO newsroom; IBS obtains the advertising and develops the links with other clients to the TV station's Web site. IBS shares revenues with WCCO.
"We launched Channel 4000 in March of '96," says Johnson, "and it has been successful beyond our imagination. We have been in the black since October of last year."
IBS has also produced Web sites for KCBS in Los Angeles and KOIN in Portland and is now working out agreements with WEWS in Cleveland and WISC in Madison. The deal with KCBS' Channel 2000 is similar to the one with WCCO. However, the other three situations are set up as limited liability corporations that are owned 50-50 while IBS employs the news and sales staffs.
In Las Vegas, the KLAS Web site is part of a new business development division set up by the station's owner, Landmark Communications, which operates other media properties including newspapers and cable's Weather Channel. The station's news department handles the editorial content for its Web site, but that is just a small part of KLAS' online package.
"From day one we put our news scripts on and now we integrate CBS news into it," says Phil Pikelny, the manager of the operation. "But we are more than a Web page. We are an Internet access provider. We now have nine interactive products. One is a yellow pages directory. Another is a relocation guide for real estate. We're also working with Real Networks in terms of streaming our newscasts [over the Internet] with video. No matter who the advertiser is locally, we have a product for them."
Pikelny says the division began making money 18 months after it was created in December of 1994 and has had six figure revenues for the last two years.
WRAL executives admit its Web site has not turned a profit since its creation in January of 1996. But they figure earnings will increase as the Internet itself gains more credibility with advertisers. WRAL believes the quality of its product will be the prime attraction for both the public and advertisers so it has concentrated on delivering the station's news to Net aficionados.
Unlike many local TV stations that use their Web sites for promotion and public relations with little news, WRAL goes all out to parallel the station's newscasts – and then some. "We do real time video streaming of our newscasts live at 5, 5:30, 6 and 11 and then offer them on demand in our archives," says John Conway, WRAL's online services manager.
"We also audio stream all our newscasts live and provide video clips and scripts. We're updating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and we frequently add information before a newscast unless it is an enterprise or competitive situation."
Anyone who doubts whether these Internet sites are offering good journalism can check for themselves. Two Channel 4000 reporters recently were given the Society of Professional Journalists' first award for public service in online reporting for their coverage of the upper Midwest floods last year.
If there is anything that has surprised Johnson, it is the way the IBS Web sites are being used by consumers. IBS originally believed the sites' traffic would mimic services such as America Online, with heaviest usage on nights and weekends. But 70 percent of the IBS traffic is between 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
"Our type of user comes into work and gets on the computer and taps in to find out what's going on," says Johnson, "then comes back one or two times during the day. We've found that 49 percent use Channel 4000 four times a day with the biggest spike time being at noon and the second busiest between three and four in the afternoon when they're getting ready to go home."
Johnson is convinced that local news is going to be vital on the Net. "In every communications revolution, the local information play has been the most important and that goes back to the telephone, to radio and to television," Johnson says. "The question is, who's going to do it? The newspapers? The broadcasters? Or some independent entity?" l###