The local connection - Broadcasting & Cable

The local connection

With a little help from academe, ways to fix TV stations' Web sites
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I generally don't hold academic studies of real-world broadcast-industry issues in high regard. Much more often than not, these reports seem more concerned with presenting equations and graphs that explain the statistics contained in the work, rather than useful advice that can be gleaned from the numbers.

That said, I am very impressed by "From On-Air To Online World: Examining The Content And Structures of Broadcast TV Stations' Web Sites," published in the Journalism and Mass Communications Quarterly's summer edition, which is a publication of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

The report, by University of Florida associate professor of journalism Sylvia M. Chan-Olmsted and Junk Suk Park, a former journalism candidate at the same school, surveyed 300 such sites.

When I spoke with Chan-Olmsted she told me that station managers and news directors tend to underestimate the online medium, and with some exceptions, don't make their Web sites compelling enough to attract the high number of page views that would attract advertisers and make money.

Chan-Olmsted and Park evaluated each site for numerous characteristics, including home-page content, the percent of sites that contained specific types of news, sports, promotional content and links; plus viewer feedback and production value characteristics for each site.

Let's review five of this extraordinarily comprehensive study's findings and draw conclusions:

The study found that:About 76% of home pages had at least some opening text for the top news story, but only 16% had an accompanying photo to illustrate the piece.

What this tells us:This strikes me as counterintuitive. The Web is a visual medium, and, duh, so is television. If you have footage of a police raid on a meth lab, grab a still and post it.

The study found that:About 26% of home pages had at least some weather text, and 3.3% contained weather-related images (not boilerplate weather graphics, such as drawings of cumulus clouds).

What this tells us:The forecast is mission is known to be critical for many on-air and online eyeballs, yet all too many stations air weather updates only during news broadcasts. This information should always be available, front and center on sites.

Do not force the site visitor to hunt for an icon. The home page should list the temperature, a short forecast, and any special weather info. There is no excuse for the lack of weather-related photos, especially when the skies are about to make news.

The study found that:Network logos appeared on 83.9% of surveyed home pages, but links to the affiliated network's Web site were offered on only 61.4% of these main pages.

What this tells us:At best, the disparity reflects oversight. The network you are affiliated with spends untold millions promoting the identity of its synergized, on-air and online content. If you find it important to wave the network logo, at least give your site visitors a way to get to its site.

The study found that:While 60% of sites posted professional league sports news, only 24% had local sports news, such as local college or high school scores.

What this tells us:Offering local sports coverage and scores would be a great loyalty builder. Not only do people like to read about themselves, but about their sons and daughters! If you posted news of winning touchdown receptions and jump shots at the buzzer, families wouldn't only click on such links, they would e-mail them to friends and relatives in other cities.

The study found that:Only 6.3% of sites had an online news-tips form that could be filled out and sent to the station from that station's Web site.

What this tells us:Any station will tell you that while news tips are valuable, they can be a nuisance. Putting this function online helps free up valuable phone time spent in explaining to people that no, we are not interested in covering Uncle Elmer's perpetual-motion machine.

All of this is good fodder for conversation at RTNDA this week.

Russell Shaw is a veteran Internet and broadcast-industry author/journalist based in Portland, Ore., and can be reached by e-mail at russell-shaw@delphi.com. His column appears regularly.

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