The FCC mandate for the digital conversion was a costly and challenging endeavor for the broadcast industry. The conversion did, however, create valuable additional bandwidth and opportunities for local broadcasters. The productive use of the additional digital bandwidth has been slow to evolve partly because of the economic downturn and the lack of available, efficient revenue-generating products. Considerations such as brand extension to local and increasingly hyperlocal audiences, competition from other forms of media, budget and manpower constraints, and the upcoming mobile TV arena have caused a considerable amount of consternation for stations as they attempt to make decisions about how to attract an ever more distracted viewing public.
The convergence of the Web, digital television and mobile TV, as well as the severity of the economic downturn, is more than ample cause for stations to rethink their digital tier strategy. Station management teams are being challenged to employ systems and processes that are capable of delivering their content and programming on a variety of platforms in a single efficient system that minimizes the strain on the stations' resources.
The concept of the digital channel-in-a-box system is an appealing, albeit elusive, objective for broadcasters. The solution must have the flexibility to meet a variety of viewer and advertiser demands, ease of programming and the dexterity to handle a variety of content types and formats. The single-system, channel-in-a-box approach is a cost-effective and flexible solution that addresses many of the configuration and station needs for a digital tier programming system.
Selection of programming for the digital tier is difficult because of the rapid evolution of competing industry media. If broadcasters select a digital tier product or system that is locked into a single type of content — such as weather, news, movies or sports — and the market demands change, broadcasters will be left with equipment and systems with greatly reduced viewership and revenue generation.
Over the past six years, there have been many options available to broadcasters for airing on their digital tier (NBC WxPlus, MGM, RetroTV, The Tube, MyTV, etc.), but few options have actually generated a consistent revenue stream and a profit for the station. Many of the companies providing digital tier content over proprietary platforms are no longer in business, leaving stations with useless equipment and looking for a viable solution.
Networks are scrambling to find programming that appeals to the masses, creating an opportunity for local television stations to target their local viewers on the digital tier. Television stations have spent many years establishing local content and brands in their markets. Critical to the survival of local broadcasters is the ability to expand their brand in the market and easily move their content to multiple platforms.
An automated workflow is the single most important factor at the station level when selecting a digital tier channel-in-a-box solution. Engineering and IT resources are being cut, and monetary resources are limited. Some of the systems being aired today require full-time staffs to operate; this will dramatically cut into the station's return and viability of succeeding as the digital tier evolves. Systems that are fully automated and aggressively supported by their vendors are required to ensure the highest probability of success in the local market.
Integrating a new digital programming channel with other station equipment is a critical factor in determining the automation and flexibility of the systems the broadcasters consider. If the new system can interface with the station's existing equipment and is transparent with other station platforms, it expands the capability and flexibility of what broadcasters air and how robust the presentation will be.
The workflow for the digital channel system should incorporate full integration with all of the content the station generates. Once content is generated at the station, the digital system should be able to ingest the content without further configuration. The more flexible the content capabilities of the digital system, the greater the opportunity for a higher return on investment (ROI) at the station. The digital system should also be able to process information and share additional information between a variety of platforms including Web, digital tier, mobile TV, streaming and traditional television broadcasts.
Ideally, the digital channel system should be content agnostic. The concept of content agnosticism allows content and video to be ingested from a wide variety of sources and formats, automatically, without further configuration by the television station. Types of content should include websites, XML/RSS, AP/ENPS feeds, wire feeds, school closing, National Weather Service, videos, live video feeds, simulcast video, digital media, etc. To ensure the flexibility of the system, it will most likely require nonproprietary formats for data acceptance.
The digital system should also include an integrated digital video server for content and commercial playback and be capable of integration with existing servers. It should also provide an integrated traffic and automation interface designed specifically for the playback and billing of commercial and other revenue content on digital tier channels or at least integrate with existing traffic systems. The cost of a second license on the current traffic system is often a prohibitively expensive method of trafficking the digital channel, so an integrated system by your digital channel supplier may be the best option.
Advertising flexibility should be another consideration when looking at digital channel systems. The days of 30- or 60-second spots are giving way to logo placements, sponsorships tied to specific content, product placement and paid programming. Many nontraditional types of revenue-generating sources that have been successful on the Web and have been key revenue sources for the newspaper industry — classified ads, real estate, obituaries, employment ads — are starting to find their way to the digital tier. Many stations are also finding opportunities with new, nontraditional advertisers because of the substantially lower cost to air ads on the digital tier. As sponsors and sales departments demand more options to generate revenue, the digital tier system will have to be flexible enough to handle the requirements.
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The ability to ingest and display local information on the station's digital tier system with virtually no station involvement creates a high ROI. Several systems available today allow a fully automated workflow solution, allowing the broadcaster to start the workflow with a third party inputting the information, which is then pushed to the station's Web page and then directly to the on-air display system. This type of automation workflow provides a turnkey website and digital tier presentation, which doesn't need to be managed by the station.
FCC compliance is an area that is still under review on the digital tier. If you select a system today for the digital tier that includes the three primary FCC mandates — EAS notifications, closed captioning and children's programming — the future costs associated with these items on the system will be controlled, and broadcasters will not have to worry about integration issues in the future.
One additional consideration may be the capability of the system to stream your channel to your Web page and to mobile TV spectrum in the future. The efficiency of the system configuration and output should be carefully analyzed. If the broadcaster can use the same system for creating its digital tier and mobile TV applications, many efficiencies in both personnel and financial resources will be realized.
To be successful on the digital tier, broadcasters must be as flexible as possible in content and platform, having the ability to change programming quickly to match local viewers' and advertisers' changing needs and viewing habits. The system must also be transparent with the other equipment and content at the station, allowing the station personnel to create content once and push it out to a variety of platforms including the digital tier.
Broadcasters should consider digital tier products that operate on an open platform with nonproprietary software and equipment that is flexible enough to adapt to a variety of content. The open platform of a true digital channel-in-a-box system allows the broadcaster the flexibility to air its brand, change programming easily and as often as required, and to stay competitive with the rapidly changing needs of its viewers.
Investment in an automated digital channel system — which capitalizes on the station's current look, staff, and branding — will create a high-quality local digital programming channel. This will satisfy the FCC's demands for local digital programming while generating additional revenue at a low cost of production.
If stations use the right combination of products and services by virtue of an open-platform, content-agnostic digital channel in a box, they will be able to optimize their return on investment and generate a profitable “new” revenue source with their digital channel programming.
Peter Levy is the president of Weather Metrics.