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TV station: A semantic problem

Closing keynote speaker at the Broadcast Engineering and B&C News Technology Summit was Ron Stitt, vice president digital media, Fox Television Station (FTS) Group. Stitt is responsible for online operations, business development and strategy for the FTS Group in NYC. He’s been responsible for helping the FTS Web sites grow to an average of almost 10 million monthly unique users.

Stitt began his presentation by saying that the term “TV station” has become a semantic problem for the industry. He said that future success for broadcasters will require stations to radically rethink what they provide and how they provide it. Stations will have to supply much more than just an OTA signal. Going forward, a successful TV station will have to supply owned and branded content to a multitude of platforms, formats and devices. “You can’t be just a TV station,” he claimed.

As an example of the challenge broadcasters face, Stitt said last year, 11 percent of the local ad buys were spent on TV. In 2007, that number was 20 percent. The almost 50 percent reduction reflects the increasing number of choices advertisers have on which to spend their ad budgets. Stitt said the change actually represents an opportunity for broadcasters because they can position themselves to provide new products that advertisers will want to buy.

Stitt called broadcasting a mature industry. As such, the historically rapid growth seen in the earlier years is no longer present. He used a graph called the "Hypercycle of Emerging Technology" from the Gartner Group to illustrate his point. The graph to the right represents the life of a business or developing technology as it moves through four phases.

The first period is called the introduction phase. This is where the business is launched and begins to expand. The new business or technology may be small, but innovative. Think 1980 Internet days.

The next period is called the growth phase. This is where the business or technology expands more rapidly. This may be the heyday for everyone involved. Success is good, maybe even easy. Expansion takes place, staffs are hired, salaries boosted. Older broadcasters will recall the 1960-1985 years.

During the next period, the business enters what is called the mature phase. Growth slows. Sales become sluggish, more difficult. Facility expansion slows, even stops. This is where the broadcast industry is today.

Finally, the business will enter a declining phase. Sales start to retract, businesses shrink, staffs are reduced, budgets cut. This is the newspaper industry.

Stitt used his graph to emphasize to News Technology Summit attendees that like other businesses, the broadcast industry has moved through three of the four phases. It is now in a mature phase. Without changes in how this industry operates and the products it produces, the curve turns down and further retrenchment will follow as it enters the declining phase.

However, Stitt says this needn’t be the next chapter for broadcasters. Back to his early statement, the term “TV station” has become a semantic problem. It is time to redefine what a TV station does.

Stitt suggests that despite the maturing nature of the broadcast business, stations can still succeed if they are willing to recognize the needed changes and then make them. Owners, news and engineering managers will need to redefine what a TV station needs to do to succeed and then do it. Most important, according to Stitt, is for mangers to rethink how the TV station distributes its content.

Linear TV watching is dead, according to Stitt. People want to enjoy their programming choices on their schedule and on their choice of devices. Broadcasters who expect viewers to interrupt whatever they are doing to sit in front of a television at 6 p.m. to watch the local newscast will be disappointed, according to Stitt.

Even more important, “People don’t go to content, they discover it,” Stitt said. That’s his essential point. Broadcasters may believe that their brand is strong enough to draw eyeballs directly to their station’s Internet site, but Stitt maintains that’s not the case. Instead, many find that 70 percent of a site’s traffic comes through search, i.e. discovery. This is where search engine optimization (SEO) plays a crucial role. SEO is the practice of adding keywords and data about news stories and video to a site’s HTML code. This can improve the volume of traffic to a Web site that comes from search engines. When Stitt asked the audience how many were practicing SEO on their news stories, not one hand went up. Always practice SEO, he said.

Stitt says that today, news stories now break first in social medial, not on broadcast sites. “Stations need to overcome the natural desire to hoard content and news stories. Distribute your news to lots of others,” he said.

Stitt called on news directors to implement what he called the “super distribute model.” This means developing affiliate site and distribution path agreements with others. Post everything everywhere. The advantage of his super distribute and SEO model is that stations become “a source more than a simple destination.”

“It drives more traffic,” he said.

Demographics were also at the forefront of Stitt’s presentation. “Today’s younger audiences are less interested in what happened and more interested in what is happening, what’s going to happen and what it means to them,” said Stitt.

There is a lot of opportunity for innovative thinkers, and many of the news directors attending the conference are far along in implementing his ideas. Like Stitt, they recognize the rewards of new thinking and practices. We just need to redefine the term “TV station.”