There’s good reason for TV stations to be focused on free ad-supported television (FAST) channels and other digital platforms — they have become a rapidly growing business.
“In the aggregate, FAST channels have generated $7.3 billion this year and that’s projected to grow to $34 billion in 2027 amidst a rising tide of consumer usage and a rising tide of monetization that’s complementary to local,” said Greg Morrow, GM of ViewNexa by Bitcentral.
“The numbers for FAST for news content are off the charts,” said Rick Young, SVP, head of global products, LTN. “The numbers show that half the FAST channels out there are news and half of the viewing time [on those channels] is news. That’s massive. And the more real-time, the more live the content is on those channels, the more demographics that you want will find them, whether they are male or younger.”
While CBS started implementing FAST and digital streaming in 2014, it’s only been within the last three-to-five years that most local station groups have gotten their live-streaming operations off the ground with services such as Fox’s LiveNow, Gray’s Local News Live and CBS’ local news apps. The relative newness of these services means that they are still in experimental and iterative phases.
“We look at the minute-by-minute concurrence when we’re evaluating the success of the streams,” said Sahand Sepehrina, SVP, streaming, CBS News & Stations. “We see that the local audience comes in about one to one half hours earlier than the national audience. Because of that, we have invested heavily in mornings. Now we have nearly 100 hours of live newscasts that are streaming exclusively in the mornings. We’ve seen that drive new audiences so as we’re starting to look at other day parts, we’re getting a lot smarter about what content we invest in.”
Viewers tend to turn to live streaming news when big events are happening. The longer the events go on, the more viewers tune in and stick around, stations are finding.
“We have found that live events really start to pick up an audience after the first hour. When we invested in live events that ran an hour to two hours, the ROI wasn’t nearly as strong as live events that were much longer,” Sepehrina said.
Gray launched its Local News Live product out of Omaha, Neb., in 2020 and then moved it to Washington, D.C. The group quickly realized that it needed to be live and streaming as much as possible and that there’s an appetite for local news coverage, even for people who don’t live in that market.
“We always want to be live. Our research and traffic have shown that engagement was so high when we were live that we really never want to go dark,” said Mike Braun, SVP, digital media, Gray Television.
In addition, viewers are more interested in watching stories from other markets than Gray expected: “It’s not only where you are, it’s where you’ve been and where you are going,” Braun said.
Three live-streaming strategies that Bitcentral’s Morrow has found to be successful for local stations are first, to put up weather and traffic cameras that viewers return to often.
Second, stations are seeing success programming “hyperlocal” sports, such as high school, junior college and local second-tier professional leagues.
“The most successful thing we’ve seen on that front is working with the state associations on state championships, which are concentrated tournaments that take place over a period of days in sports like hockey and football,” Morrow said. “These get huge amounts of traffic and there are sponsorship opportunities. We are talking live content with huge tune-in times. People tune in all day long to watch, and it draws audiences outside of the local community.”
Third is programming a host-driven, vlogging style of content, like viewers find on TikTok or YouTube Shorts, which is something the Fox Television Stations have done both on their local-news streams and on their streaming news service, LiveNow. LiveNow has digital journalists, or DJs, who create their own content on the fly, although they are supported by producers.
“They choose the shots, they talk about the content as it’s happening, they are just constantly just managing everything,” said Jeff Zellmer, SVP, digital operations, Fox Television Stations. “They have to have that passion, they have to have that stamina, but they also feel really empowered.”
Allowing talent to stay in constant touch with the audience creates a relationship that keeps viewers coming back.
“This is about having a dialogue with the audience about local issues,” Morrow said. “We saw when a station added that component to their local broadcast, they saw lift, engagement and recurring tune-in.”
That tune-in extends past the typical local news audience of older adults to younger millennial and Gen-Z consumers.
“What we are finding in the digital or FAST world is that the audience is younger and more male-skewing than we might have imagined,” said LTN’s Young.
Another advantage of live streaming is that journalists can spend as much or as little time as they want on certain topics.
“There’s the freedom to talk for 10 minutes if there’s a reason to do that. Journalists are eager to talk about things they didn’t cover in a one-minute package,” Zellmer said. “We are watching the data constantly. We absolutely pay attention to the viewer. We wouldn’t be doing what we are doing if we didn’t see that it was growing over time.”
Fox is not only watching the data closely — it’s allowing viewers to watch closely as well. LiveNow includes a graphic in the left corner that tracks how many people are watching at any given time. “It gives the DJ immediate feedback of whether people are interested in what he or she is doing,” Zellmer said.
It’s all leading to a time in the not-too-distant future, where TV stations’ linear and digital offerings are all just one part of a larger content offering and aren’t considered to be distinct products, Young said.
“It’s no longer a world of traditional versus digital,” he added. “The audience is everywhere. The numbers are equal in terms of engagement and new opportunities on old and new platforms. It’s a ‘yes and’ strategy for everybody now going forward.”
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