Local TV

Cover Story: Behind The Scenes At WNBC's New York Nonstop

New digital channel is centerpiece of NBC’s revamped local media strategy 3/07/2009 02:00:00 AM Eastern

Related: A Peek At WNBC's New York Nonstop (see video below)

In New York, cool is king, and word of mouth can trump the mightiest marketing machine. Even in a dismal economy, flashy restaurants can thrive in the far-flung corners of the city without coughing up much in the way of promotional dollars or, in some cases, even hanging a sign out front. Get the right tastemakers in the door, the thinking goes, and viral marketing will take care of the rest.

With that in mind, NBC Local Media New York hatched New York Nonstop, a 24/7 digital channel, on March 9, and commenced its fight for eyeballs in the city that never sleeps. Nonstop's marketing push kicked off just five days earlier; hardly anyone outside 30 Rock even knew the name as of March 3. Occupying channel 161 in the city, a spot most recently held by Weather Plus, Nonstop is desperately fighting to make itself seen in the media Mecca.

And it couldn't have picked a worse time to launch, with the nation's economy in the tank and local television taking it on the chin. Yet WNBC President/General Manager Tom O'Brien, sharing his Nonstop strategy in a 30 Rock conference room days before launch, is looking years down the road.

“This is about evolution—we need to do this,” he says. “We need to find ways to better engage our audience, and provide the products and the opportunities for them to view us on their schedule and their platforms. We think this is a natural extension for us.”

Necessity: the Mother of Reinvention

Nonstop is another example of stations reinventing themselves as more than a batch of newscasts in their markets. The seeds for the $10 million project were sown a year ago when NBC Local Media President John Wallace implored staffers to rethink their stations as “full-service local media production centers,” cranking out pertinent content—not strictly news—at all times.

The strategy was a good fit for WNBC, which had seen its local news rank drop to third in the No. 1 DMA. Part of Wallace's strategy involved relaunching the Websites at NBC's 10 owned stations under the hipster-beckoning “Locals Only” rubric. NBCNewYork.com launched late last October, offering as much content about fashion and celebrity escapades as city politics and crime.

Further pushing to make itself relevant with those much more familiar with Chuck D than star anchor Chuck Scarborough, NBC Local Media held a Locals Only party in New York late last month at what it called a “secret location.” Twentysomething trendsetters who'd answered insider-y questions about the city were sent invitations to a private loft in SoHo.

Central to NBC's overhauled local game plan is its new “content center” at 30 Rock—a workflow architecture in which content is simultaneously transmitted to broadcast TV, Nonstop, mobile devices, the Web or even WNBC “taxicasts.” Construction began in early September and was wrapping up right at the launch of Nonstop. The newsroom features a number of different locations for talent to report from, with a half-dozen Sony POV robotic cameras, a mesmerizing 103-inch Panasonic plasma monitor and Dalet software to feed the multiplatform beast around the clock.

Showing off the new gear during a sneak-peek tour of the dazzling new digs, WNBC VP of News and Content Vickie Burns calls the content center the backbone of the new strategy. “In the before world, it was a very linear, silo-ed operation, with lots of people with narrow and distinct responsibilities and skill sets,” she says. “We've given people the tools to do content creation at their desktop and control the product more completely.”

Employees were pushed to learn the new system; many were asked to apply for new jobs, as some old ones no longer existed. This caused no shortage of staffer grousing, some skeptical about the station launching a channel without adding head count. Burns says excitement outweighs staffer anxiety these days. “Anytime you're doing something this fundamentally different, it's going to be a challenge,” she says. “But we're struck by the sense of creativity and optimism people have approached the channel with.”

Scarborough will anchor an hour newscast at 7 p.m. on Nonstop. While there's news and weather every 15 minutes, a pre-launch peek showed a heavy dose of lifestyle content. Nonstop at times feels more like Current TV or even the Web than a traditional news outfit. New Yorkers on the street offer insights on everything from dating to pizza; content also comes from NBC's production outfit LX.TV and outside partners such as the young male Website Thrillist.

WNBC is hyping its “round-the-clock local information and lifestyle digital channel” with on-air promos featuring NBC in-crowd types like Meredith Vieira and Chris Matthews uttering slogans like “Always On” and, in a nod to the power of word of mouth in Gotham, “Pssst! Pass it on!”

Nonstop debuted to 5.7 million households in the city and its suburbs, both on cable and over the air on digital channel 4.2. But will New Yorkers, famously pressed for time and faced with the city's myriad diversions, tune in? An informal poll of 25 youngish Manhattanites on the day of Nonstop's announcement last week found just three people who'd heard of WNBC's cable plans; one, an employee at a cable company slated to carry the channel in Queens, seemed shocked not to know about it.

Many industry veterans say the network has an uphill climb. Some applaud NBC for trying something bold and different, and hope to see it succeed. “This economy clearly offers the opportunity for aggressiveness,” says Frank N. Magid TV President Steve Ridge. “Consumers and advertisers demand uniqueness—favoring access, timely substance and transparency over control, package and polish.”

Others privately question the logic of launching a cable channel with WNBC itself in rough straits, and wonder how WNBC will fill the extra ad inventory when stations can hardly find enough advertisers for their broadcast programs.

'A real challenge'

While Nonstop's slick lifestyle content makes it somewhat different from Time Warner Cable's NY1 News, some wonder why WNBC would choose to play in this same sandbox. After all, NY1 has a 16-year head start, and its channel 1 position is prime Manhattan real estate. “I think they have a real challenge on hand, as NY1 pretty much covers New York terrifically,” says Al Primo, the creator of the Eyewitness News concept and a longtime player in the New York news scene.

Time Warner Cable Regional VP of News Steve Paulus says NY1 is where New Yorkers instinctively go when a water main breaks or a governor is jammed up in a prostitution scandal. “On a day when the New York City school system shuts down and people can't get to work,” he said during a snowstorm last week, “people are not going to turn to a lifestyle channel.”

While some hot restaurants thrive despite New York's packed dining landscape, numerous others go belly-up. Which camp will New York Nonstop fall into? Tom O'Brien says his all-night content cafe is built to last. “We're in this for the long term, so this is a good, smart play,” he says. “We'll be better positioned when the downturn ends to be a much more significant force in New York local media.”

Additional reporting by David Tanklefsky

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