Despite vast opportunity, the nation’s TV stations have largely failed to capitalize on the Internet. That’s the essential message from an exclusive B&C/Magid Media Labs “Online User Study,” which polled over 2,000 Internet users ages 18-54 across the country.
On the bright side, viewership for stations’ televised news remains high (84% watch a local television newscast at least once a week). But less encouraging is that only half of the polled users access local news online at least once a month, and a mere 13% surf the Web for local news on a daily basis.
And if station executives think those expensive news videos are reaching a mainstream audience, the study says streaming video remains a niche pursuit: Less than one-third of respondents (28%) watch video of local news stories at least once a month. The station execs contacted for this feature suggest this is because the user-friendly Flash players are fairly new on station sites, and the low video consumption reflects a hangover from old players that didn’t always sync up with the user’s computer. “It’s still an emerging technology,” says Peter Maroney, VP/general manager at WTVR Richmond, Va. “But it’s still the faster-growing area [of the Web business].”
Now some good news. Fully 74% of respondents say they access local weather online at least once a month, and 26% do it daily. And while newspaper sites continue to dominate the local Web battle, TV stations clearly have the upper hand when it comes to storms and sunshine, beating local newspaper sites nearly 10-1 in weather news.
Indeed, the station sites are where viewers run to when the weather gets severe; KITV Honolulu, for instance, garnered 2.7 million page views the day an earthquake struck Hawaii last year, about the amount of traffic the site normally gets in a month. “Breaking news and breaking weather continue to drive traffic more than anything,” says Michael Rosenberg, president/general manager of KITV Honolulu.
Different World on Web
But there are some critical discrepancies between TV-news viewers and stations’ Web visitors that station managers are only beginning to recognize. Only 48% of news viewers with a preferred TV station for news visit the station site at least once a month. Managers say the difference between the two media is passive versus active consumption: Whereas viewers tune in to TV news to see what the station has to offer, they’re going online to actively seek out specific information, not simply what the station happens to be offering up. They tune in online at a different point of the day (managers say their Web primetime is 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. but extending into a greater portion of the workday), typically want a different type of fare, and like personalized Web information. As a result, some stations brand their sites differently from the linear channel, such as KITV’s thehawaiichannel.com site.
Entertainment news, for one, has a strong presence on the Web at WCVB Boston, but not so much in its newscasts. “What people are interested in on the site may be very different than what they’re interested in on TV. You have to think about the Website in a different way,” says Neil Ungerleider, who was promoted to manager of digital and multimedia at WCVB earlier this year after a long stint in the newsroom. “If you simply see it as an extension of television, you’ve missed the point.”
Some say the conundrum lies in the fact that TV newscasts are inherently geared to appeal to the wide majority (there’s a reason it’s called broadcasting), while the Web is filled with increasingly narrow-focus sites that cater to niche tastes. As such, it can be difficult to keep disparate categories like breaking news and used-car listings under the same umbrella.
“The problem is, the newscasts have such a broad focus,” says Lew Leone, VP/general manager at WNYW New York. “You try to be everything to everybody, but you can’t. You almost need a one-off site [for niche departments].”
Still, station execs say there’s substantial opportunity in catering to viewers’ needs outside the stations’ expertise. The B&C/Magid study supports this: 71% of respondents say they look for retail products online on a monthly basis, and 60% say they actually buy something. In addition, 49% said they’d be “very likely” to use a localized employment site.
Yet enticing these users into the tent is no small task: between 13% and 25% said they would be “very likely” to use a local-TV site for information on a range of topics that include health, real estate, in-depth sports or local events, while a more heartening 50%-60% said they’d be “somewhat” likely to seek out such information on the station site.
The study also revealed that sampling from station site to station site is extremely low; 53% of respondents with a preferred station for local news “never” sample another station’s site. Leone, for one, isn’t surprised: “The sites [in a given market] aren’t all that different. You can get pretty much the same info on channel 2, 5, 7, 9 or 11,” he says. “If you’re loyal to Channel 5, you’ll stick with Channel 5 online.”
Station executives agree that the study represents significant opportunity for them online. They believe they’ve got the upper hand over the Yahoos and Googles of the world, with newsrooms ready to deliver fast-breaking stories, as opposed to the generic reports from the Associated Press favored by the aggregators. They also believe they can chip away at newspapers’ online primacy (other than weather), because they’re better trained in delivering video.
An Audience of One
They’re also confident they can further their weather advantage with personalization and customization—by “letting people play weatherman,” according to one executive—by offering forecasts that are pertinent to the user’s specific region, not the to broader market covered on the TV newscast. As the study indicates, 70% use personalized weather on the Web at least once a month.
And while 43% of respondents take an anchor’s suggestion to go online for more information on a newscast report, station managers agree that’s not a very effective device for growing Web traffic anymore. “If they’ve just seen the story, they’ve just seen the story,” says Ungerleider. “What can you provide them that they haven’t seen?”
The study reinforces that the rules of engagement in the local online war are, at least from a sales perspective, still being laid out. “No one’s figured it out yet, at least not in the big markets,” says Leone. “Unlike money spent on a national level, there’s no upfront, no monthly schedule, and every deal is done differently. It’s still the wild, wild West out there.”