Stations Show Mobile App-titude

LIN outlets offer iPhone applications on iTunes
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Viewers in any of the 17 markets where LIN owns a station can now download a free application that allows them to view local news on their iPhone. The project has been a priority for LIN's digital department since late last year, with the first of the stations' apps, representing WALA Mobile (Alabama), showing up in the iTunes online store in February.

Four more, including WLUK Green Bay and WDTN Dayton, made their debut in April. Development for the rest of the stations' apps is completed, and LIN execs anticipated iTunes would have all of them available at the end of last week.

More than 20,000 users downloaded the WALA app in the first quarter, generating some 250,000 Web impressions. It has earned 2½ stars out of five from users; one with the screen name BigFlizz commented: “Kudos to this Mobile, AL Fox station for an awesome app. Interesting local news stories keep me coming back for more.”

LIN Senior VP of New Media Robb Richter says the apps, on which LIN has partnered with News Over Wireless, are a cutting-edge way to extend the stations' brand to viewers' palms, pockets and purses. “For me, it's the closest thing to television you can get without watching television or sitting in front of a computer,” Richter says.

New gold standard

LIN's timing seems ideal: Local news outlets are increasingly focused on reaching viewers around the clock, and the iPhone has moved rapidly from an early-adopter plaything to mainstream usage.

Apple has sold more than 15 million iPhones since the fourth quarter of 2008, and the device has quickly become the gold standard for mobile Web consumption. (Apple has also sold 33 million iPods this year; the iTunes apps work on the iPod Touch, too.) A recent report from Morgan Stanley stated that the iPhone owned a 38% share of “mobile Internet operating system usage” in March—head and shoulders above the BlackBerry's 11%.

Stations are eager to take their mobile strategy beyond breaking news and traffic distributed via e-mail. Working with the tech firm DoApp, Inergize Digital launched its free Mobile Local News app, which offers station news and video for the iPhone and iPod Touch, for WOAI San Antonio, KTVX Salt Lake City and KLRT Little Rock in mid-May. KOKI Tulsa, KGPE Fresno and WHP Harrisburg apps debuted in late May. (All are owned by Newport Television, which also owns Inergize.)

Inergize Digital Senior VP/General Manager Jason Gould says deals are signed for another 120 broadcasting and publishing clients—all serving 3G video. Around 20 are developed and awaiting approval from the iTunes gatekeepers. “The biggest issue you face with Apple is meeting the 3G requirements for video,” Gould says.

Industry watchers say it's vital for local television to invest in such technology. “Stations need to look at every opportunity possible to remain relevant with their audience,” says Magid Media Labs Executive Director Jaime Spencer. “Consumers want information when they want it, and stations have to be able to deliver it.” (Magid consults for various LIN stations, but Spencer was not directly involved in LIN's iPhone project.)

The LIN station apps focus on video (WiFi- and 3G-enabled), local news and weather. The iTunes download takes seconds, creating an icon featuring the station's logo on the iPhone screen. The applications offer the latest text-and-photo stories, along with video of talent reporting news and weather.

The initial focus of the LIN apps is to extend the stations' news reach, according to Richter. But a longer-term goal is to create a substantial revenue stream. “It'll start off as a brand extension,” he says, “but we are a for-profit company.”

Advertising takes the form of banner ads, and pre-rolls might be part of the model in the future. The LIN game plan calls for sponsorships in various markets. One major national telecommunications firm is on board, while multiple regional outlets, such as furniture stores, are in talks to get involved as well. “Q3 should see some good sponsorship,” Richter says.

At Inergize, it's a 50-50 split of ad revenue with partners on Mobile Local News. Inergize also employs banner ads, and hopes to add pre-rolls to the marketing mix.

Richter says there may be an opportunity to charge users for premium content down the road, but the apps will remain free for the foreseeable future. The LIN stations are just starting to ramp up both on-air and online promotion, and Richter says they're finding an audience.

“There's been real good reaction from our markets,” he says. “It shows people where our heads are at in terms of reaching people any time of day.”

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michael.malone@reedbusiness.com

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