KOLD finds key to attracting audiences to digital subchannel

For all of those digital TV stations that are multicasting an HD and one or two (or more) SD channels, but can't figure out what to put on those extra channels besides short news and weather updates, KOLD-DT, the CBS affiliate in Tucson, AZ, might have found a more attractive solution.

On July 22, a major three-alarm fire broke out at the local Friedman Waste Control Systems recycling plant. Anchor Dan Marries (a volunteer firemen) was at the scene for 90 minutes of uninterrupted live coverage on subchannel 13.2 while viewers watching KOLD’s regular CBS prime time programming got news updates during program breaks on HDTV channel 13.1. It was also teased with a lower-third crawl.

The station sent a crew and a live microwave trick to the fire to provide the coverage. The signal was sent back to the station’s secondary video server that’s dedicated to the subchannel. Typically, channel 13.2 broadcasts a weather and news service that is branded as KOLD News 13 Now.

“It was really our first experiment to go wall-to-wall with breaking news coverage on our subchannel,” said Jim Arnold, the station’s vice president/general manager, “and the response was really surprising.”

He said that ratings received for the 90 minutes of live coverage was far greater than any of its weather and news coverage had ever received.

“We have been offering weather, with five minute news updates on our subchannel, but after June 12, we realized there would be a lot more people who could see our digital channels,” Arnold said. “This prompted us to explore other types of content. When this major fire broke out, it was big news in Tucson. And it provided the perfect subject material. People could see the smoke from miles around, so they had a lot of questions about what was going on.”

Even competing stations in town were watching KOLD’s subchannel during the fire to get updates for their reports.

“In order to make these subchannels successful, the content has to be compelling and you have to promote it heavily to draw people in,” Arnold said.

He also said that since June 12, the station has received several calls from viewers specifically about the subchannel, “which I think is real progress. There’s a lot of potential out there for these subchannels, we’ve just scratched the surface. We’d always thought that breaking news had potential for these subchannels, now we know it's true and we’re discussing a lot of options.

Because they don’t get a lot of breaking news in Tucson, KOLD’s staff is working hard to come up with ideas that will attract viewers, including 30-minute specials covering local concerns, which the station has presented on channel 13.2.

“Our crew did a marvelous job, and I’m proud of what they did and continue to do,” Arnold said.

Only two other stations in Tucson are using their additional subchannel capacity. KWBA, the CW affiliate, broadcasts Spanish language programming on its channel 58.1, and the University of Arizona’s KUAT-TV offers four additional program services: Spanish programming called V Me on channel 6.2, how-to programming called Create on channel 6.3; children’s programming on KUAS channel 27.2 and documentary programming on PBS World channel 27.3.