Every weekday, at the top of the hour, WHO Des Moines, Iowa, anchor Erin Kiernan gives viewers a rundown of the top local and national stories on the station’s Web site (whotv.com).
Kiernan reads the news, but she doesn’t appear on-screen. Rather, an animated character designed to look like her is the face of “Newsbot 13.”
Kiernan is a rising star. WHO poached her from cross-town rival KCCI, but a year-long non-compete agreement prohibits Kiernan from appearing on TV until next summer. The deal, however, does not extend to the Internet. “Erin is one of the most recognized personalities in town,” says News Director Mark Ginther. “We’ve been looking for as many ways as possible to remind people she is here.”
General Manager Jim Boyer was intrigued by online newscasts but found the production requirements daunting. “You need an audio, camera operator, director, editor and anchor,” Boyer says. “It is a great idea, but we didn’t know how to execute it efficiently and economically.”
Then a colleague turned him on to animation company Oddcast, which has created online characters (known as “Vhosts,” short for video hosts) for the likes of ESPN, BET and AccuWeather. Boyer then ordered up a digital version of Kiernan.
The station’s Web producer writes the hourly news updates, and Kiernan records the audio. Boyer declines to disclose the cost but says it is “significantly less” than producing a live-action Webcast.
In its Nov. 3 debut, Newsbot 13 attracted about 1,000 unique viewers, and Boyer says more than a quarter of those came back for a second newscast that day. WHO plans to sign up one or two advertisers as sponsors, and Vhosts will be designed to promote the advertisers. (Meanwhile, the KCCI news director had no comment about his former employee’s digital incarnation.)
Ginther has been getting calls from other stations interested in their own Newsbots. He says, “This is a funky, kitschy way to do something different in news.”