Allbritton Communications Co. launched mobile service in its seven TV markets early this month, streaming content from its broadcast channels into formats customized for four different types of handheld devices (Blackberry, iPhone, Treo and conventional WAP phones). The mobile editions are the latest steps in Allbritton's expansive multiplatform agenda, which includes integration of its video and online assets as well as operation of a Web hosting service.
Allbritton is a DC-based station group with seven ABC affiliates (and one cable news channel in Washington), located in the South and Mid-Atlantic regions. Emblematic of the company's integration initiative is the sprawling newsroom at the group's flagship facility, which encompasses staffs from WJLA-TV/Channel 7 (the ABC network affiliate in Washington), "News Channel 8" (carried on cable systems in the Washington, D.C., region) and Allbritton's fast-growing "Politico" newspaper and Web site. Although each team is clustered together, their overlapping work areas—and the intermixing of TV and online assignment editors at a central desk—underscore Allbritton's vision to leverage material across its digital platforms.
Robert Forsyth, vice president of digital media technology, Allbritton
Robert Forsyth, Allbritton's vice president of digital media technology, sees the additional distribution formats as a way to maximize the "attention seconds" that viewers are willing to devote to content. By integrating the production and delivery of material from TV stations, Forsyth hopes to increase the "relevance" (his favorite term and his goal) of the stations' output.
Forsyth, a former vice president of operations at Allbritton's WCIV-TV in Charleston, S.C., came to Washington to oversee the installation and operation of Allbritton's Irides.com, a 10-year old Web hosting business which is used by 1,500 Web sites in addition to Allbritton's own services. Irides, which will soon run at 10 Gbps, is colocated at Allbritton's headquarters (and WJLA-TV/News Channel 8 studios) in Arlington, Va., just across the Potomac River from Washington's Georgetown neighborhood.
Allbritton's digital media agenda included dabbling in local entertainment content—a program bundle called "Local Point TV," which was aired as a multicast digital sub-channel. Local Point, which debuted in October 2007, was characterized as a "local YouTube" on which Washington-area musicians, filmmakers, civic groups and others showcased their performances and presentations. Allbritton replaced Local Point in August with Retro TV Network on its digital subchannel, but Forsyth retains the entire Local Point program inventory on a PC server in his office. He hints that the material, which was simulcast on an Allbritton Web site, may return via some distribution arrangement, although he is not yet ready to provide any details.
From the Arlington headquarters, Allbritton's staff also integrates and serves content for the Web sites—and now mobile services—of the other Allbritton TV stations in Charleston, S.C., Little Rock, Tulsa, Okla., Birmingham, Ala.; Harrisburg, Pa.; and Lynchburg, Va. Local staffs at each station insert their own content. Material from all stations can be accessed and shared via the Irides.com hosting system, enabling the far-flung stations to draw on video and Web stories—further leveraging the value of local content.
Capitalizing on its Washington presence, WJLA is "going to let Politico take over political information for all eight TV station Web sites, according to Forsyth.
"We're seeing considerable interest in political content at the local level in all markets," he said.
Despite the consolidation of so many digital agendas at the Allbritton headquarters, Forsyth eschews the idea of "centralcasting." He insists that each station should control material aimed at its own community, although his orientation toward information technology favors the process of "create once, publishing many."
BUILDING WEB AUDIENCES
WJLA's Web site posts about 45 to 50 videos per week. At a peak viewing period—typically lunchtime on weekdays—up to 300 video streams are being accessed.
Allbritton is starting to track how Web users access specific stories, based on geographic locations. The new mobile content—which includes weather, sports, traffic and other regional news and business content—will be a significant indicator of how viewers look at their local TV station's branded material. In the Washington, D.C., region, the ancillary delivery will complement packages from the News Channel 8 local news service, carried via Comcast, Cox, Verizon FiOS and other cable TV companies in the DMA. Allbritton customizes the News Channel 8 feed for viewers in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.
Allbritton stations' Web sites attract eight million unique visitors per month, generating more than 120 million page views. The Politico site—with its extensive political and government coverage—is being is integrated into the TV stations' on-air and online coverage to provide additional background coverage during this election season. Allbritton stations are all introducing Politico-branded pages on their Web sites, starting with the recent political conventions. (During its first year-and-a-half of operation, 85 percent of Politico's usage came from inside Washington's Beltway.)
Privately held Allbritton does not disclose financial details, but Forsyth acknowledges that the Web sites of all eight TV stations generated more than $3 million in revenue last year. There are separate ad sales staffs for the TV stations and companion Websites, but he said they collaborate and have avoided free Web "add-ons" to broadcast commercial sales.
Although most of the TV station and online content is currently produced in standard definition format, Allbritton is beginning to use Harris NetVX encoders, which can handle high-definition video—ready to deploy as the market for HD matures, according to Forsyth.
Allbritton has built its own content management system, with the underlying business model of driving viewers back to watching the linear broadcast TV channels.
'BIG ON VIDEO'
Forsyth summarizes the corporate strategy as "very big on video," which is why the company's Web sites typically run at least 10 streams of video around the clock. The WJLA Web feeds (also available via the new mobile service) include continual streams of its branded Doppler weather service. As part of its multiplatform strategy, Allbritton feeds its weather content to WTOP-FM, an all-news radio station (owned by Bonneville), which carries its "HD3" digital side-channel.
Forsyth is passionate about "the user experience," which includes the development of social networks associated with the TV station and online and mobile sites. A "Talk Back" feature—with message boards and other user-generated content—allows viewers to discuss stories aired on the TV newscast. More than 130,000 individuals have registered on the station sites, and he expects even greater participation as the integrated "Vote 2008" feature gets underway this fall.
WJLA was "the first station to Twitter on every story" it carries, Forsyth claims, noting that the station also runs Facebook and MySpace pages—all of which is fully automated. Plans for "a large social network" include a personal agent and "innovative" ad content, which Forsyth expects to unveil by early 2009. His vision is to "maximize" the ability to push content.
"I want to make it hyper-personal," he says. "Content will always be king; it's not just about connections."