NBC Universal (NSDQ: CMCSA) has relaunched its 10 local TV station websites, this time with a hybrid approach that plays to the individual O&O’s broadcast identities, while trying to focus narrowly on web-only content that hones in single areas of news coverage that reflects something about the respective cities’ cultural interest. The basic goal: to attract more users from within the stations’ areas in order to gain ad dollars from local businesses, said Greg Scholl, president of Local Media Platforms, NBCU.
When the sites were relaunched three years ago, NBCU’s local web strategy involved downplaying the sites as extensions of the broadcasters. They were encouraged to develop their individuality and not have a uniform look and feel.
Under Scholl, who arrived at NBCU Local in Nov. 2009 after serving as CEO of digital music label The Orchard (NSDQ: ORCD), the idea has been to try to incorporate levels of independence even as the sites’ homepages share an established format and similar appearance.
For the most part, the changes that were unveiled today represent the movement toward deriving more traffic from the local market and from video. The network of sites has seen traffic rise 20 percent to roughly 10 million uniques a month, the company claims, while 50 percent of the visits are from within a site’s DMA, up from 30 percent the year before. Video currently accounts for about 2 percent of the views on the site, but the redesign is intended to build on on that opportunity, which will be a big focus in 2011.
Ironically, broadcast sites have tended to lag newspaper sites in terms of attracting local video viewers. The reason being that broadcasters generally considered video to be for TV and would do little more than repurpose some nightly news clips, where as newspapers were doing it from scratch. That stance has changed quickly, as local stations have started to pay more heed to the advertising and viewing value of online.
In terms of the character of the sites, there is more encouragement to experiment with their individuality and build out areas where they provide original content. For example, NBC’s Chicago station has a politics blog called Ward Room. While politics coverage is big everywhere, in Chicago politics is part of the city’s fabric in a way that the movie business is entwined with Los Angeles, while the fashion industry is closely associated with New York.
In describing what came before, Larry Wert, president of NBCU Local media: Chicago, Dallas and the West Coast, said that the initial idea for the station sites were little more than “mini TV guides.”
The notion of bringing more hyperlocal content into the mix is not as certain at this point. “There’s an ongoing discussion, about how much consumer-generated news, as we call it, we’re going to have,” Wert said. “We walk that line on brand protection and more opinion. But that’s where it gets dangerous. Newspapers traditionally make endorsements, but that’s an usual terrain for broadcast outlets to get into. Still, in a general sense, we have local bloggers, some of whom we pay, some that we just promote.”
The issue of local coverage and making it pay off is difficult one that most major media companies are wrestling with, whether its AOL (NYSE: AOL) and Patch or new startups. This past week’s implosion of Washington, DC-based hyperlocal outlet TBD.com, which had Politico parent Allbritton Communications scaling back the site and handing operational control to the company’s local broadcast outlet WJLA. In Allbritton’s case, the company ultimately felt that the cost of starting a local site was prohibitive.
Part of TBD‘s and other local media experiments’ problem has been in delivering scale in terms of a wide, targeted audience and managing the cost and commitment required. NBCU has taken a fairly careful approach, not veering to far in one direction or another, to try to find a way to manage an existing, fairly stable business — the main broadcast properties — while trying to build a different, yet related business online.
“Building the franchises — whether its Chicago’s Ward Room, or Los Angeles’ PropZero or TheThread in New York — is key to doing something distinctive, something that will appeal to new audiences, and yet, still brings the value and resources that the local stations have traditionally had in their own markets,” Scholl said.
At the same time, bringing everything together and harnessing the power of being part of a network is important as well, Scholl noted, pointing to a lifestyle and cultural guide that will be rolling out across all 10 station sites over the next few months, as well as expanding the The20, a franchise that features influential Twitter users that started in New York, to all the station sites this year.
Click below to see the “before and after” look of the NBC Local Site network… More about the redesign from NBCU Local here