Saturday, May 10, 2008

NBC Makes A Leap To 24-Hour Local News Channel

ARE LOCAL TV STATIONS' PROGRAMMING operations in trouble? Apparently, yes. What's the answer? Do more -- a lot more.

You can easily make a case that the Internet and other digital options are eating into local TV stations' advertising revenues.

So NBC figures to grab more --- not less -- shelf space. It will be starting up a local 24-hour digital news operation under the NBC banner through its New York City outlet, WNBC's new digital signals. It'll run on local cable systems' digital tiers.

Local TV digital signals will be the new world of programming homesteading. Right now filling 24 hours of content is a tough chore, costing a lot of money. But with news you can extend more easily into a 24-hour channel. Cable news networks in the '80s, like CNN, started this way.

In this DVR world, you don't want to time-shift news. You want news immediately -- and refreshed, with updated leads to stories you might have missed.

A 24-hour local news network would draw more viewers --albeit in sorter 10 minute to 15 minute increments -- just as national TV cable news cable channels have been doing for the last two and half decades.

NBC isn't the first to do this. Some cable operators have been into the 24-hour local cable TV news world for some time -- including Cablevision System's longtime News12 channel in the New York metropolitan area.

NBC, with a brand name already in place, seems to have an advantage over other cable news networks.

But is the move too late?

"In order to remain successful, local stations must put the appropriate weight on the additional platforms beyond their core television station," said John Wallace, president of NBC Universal's Local Media Division, which includes the NBC owned stations, in a release.

Wallace may have really meant, in order to survive.

NBC Plans 24-Hour News for the New York Region

Published: May 8, 2008
The New York Times

NBC Universal announced on Wednesday plans to start a 24-hour local cable news channel similar to New York 1. It will de-emphasize the identity of NBC’s flagship station, WNBC, Channel 4, rechristening it a “content center” and making it one part of a larger media presence.

The new channel will provide the first 24-hour local news coverage of the New York region, including New Jersey and Connecticut.

NBC’s plan calls for rebuilding Channel 4’s newsroom and melding its content closely with the new channel, as well as an existing locally oriented Web site and video displayed in places like gas pumps and taxi back seats. NBC will even take WNBC’s name off the Web site,, simply calling it NBC New York. Local news will still be shown on Channel 4.

The 24-hour news will be available to customers who have digital service on cable systems in the New York area, including Time Warner, Cablevision and Comcast. It is expected to begin in November.

NBC broke the news of the restructuring to WNBC employees at a staff meeting on Wednesday morning, led by John Wallace, formerly president of NBC’s owned-and-operated stations but now president for local media, a change in titles that signifies how the network is de-emphasizing local broadcasting.

Among other things Mr. Wallace planned to tell employees that the moves would not necessarily entail layoffs, but would require extensive retraining for many producers and other employees, who may have to work different shifts.

If the plan is deemed a success — and Mr. Wallace said that should be clear by the second quarter of next year — NBC will begin to take the same steps with the other stations in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia.

NBC owns 10 stations; those in Miami and Hartford are for sale. The reasons for reshaping WNBC are tied to the coming expansion in digital capacity for local broadcasters, as well as the sharp decline in profitability for local stations.

Digitization will enable stations to add numerous channels to their broadcast spectrum. (NBC may also add a channel devoted to local lifestyle coverage, which would include real estate listings and restaurant reviews.)

Mr. Wallace said that local television “has a perception issue right now as to whether it is a sustainable business long term.” Once a huge generator of cash for media companies, local stations now have an “eroding and aging” audience and have become “slow-growth business,” Mr. Wallace said, adding that their revenue growth averages between 1 percent and 3 percent.

“We look at our content, and we believe it’s relevant content,” Mr. Wallace said. “It’s just not convenient because of the way people’s lives have changed with technology.”

Although WNBC will continue to broadcast local news, Mr. Wallace said the new structure “will be organized around the content, not the show,” with effort concentrated on creating many news segments instead of one news program. The Channel 4 news will be simulcast on the new 24-hour news channel, which will be called New York’s News channel.

Providing round-the-clock live news will not require NBC to hire more employees for the new channel; it plans to rely instead on expanding the duties of its present staff members, which Mr. Wallace called “a work-flow change.” He said, “There will be no added staff. We’ll just use them differently.”

Producers, for example, whose previous focus had been “getting the show on the air at the assigned time,” will be retrained to produce video segments instead of shows, with the goal being to spread the segments across various local NBC platforms, be they the news channel, the Web site or the taxis.

Mr. Wallace said that he was unsure how WNBC employees would react to the redefinition of their roles and the need to be retrained, though he expected “some natural resistance that comes with any type of change.” He added, “It’s exciting, but it’s going to take a lot of heavy lifting because it’s a change in culture.”

NBC also is announcing a plan to relocate its non-NBC operations, including the main offices of cable channels like USA and Bravo, out of the NBC Universal headquarters at 30 Rockefeller Center, where it said it is running out of space, to a new, still unselected, office building.

All NBC operations, like NBC News and late-night shows like “Saturday Night Live,” will remain at Rockefeller Center.

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