New ABC O&O President: Local Brands ‘Intent On Serving’ Audiences On All Platforms

Wendy McMahon covers the waterfront in this Q&A
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LOS ANGELES—Last month, Disney announced Wendy McMahon would become the new president of ABC Owned Television Stations Group, effective Jan. 1.

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While she has just over three weeks of experience in that role, McMahon is quite familiar with the station group–especially with its digital content, a touchpoint for viewers that continues to grow in importance. Before taking over as group president, McMahon served as the senior vice president for digital and oversaw adoption of data-driven, mobile-first video strategies.

As station group president, McMahon is now responsible for all aspects of the eight ABC-owned TV stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Houston, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., and Fresno, Calif.

In this interview, she discusses a recent major upgrade to the group’s news app, whether there’s still a place for big-screen viewing in a mobile-first world, the opportunities presented by ATSC 3.0 and whether or not the recent FCC decision to do away with its local main studio rule will have any effect on the station group.

TVTechnology: Congratulations on your promotion. Let’s start with the recent announcement of an upgraded app that’s more customizable to enable users to specify personal news preferences. It also emphasizes live news streaming. From a newsroom workflow and news production perspective, what is the impact of this new offering across the ABC-owned stations?

Wendy McMahon: Thank you—I am incredibly honored by the opportunity to lead these powerful brands and businesses forward. We are committed to our local audiences and ensuring that every interaction, every engagement with our content and with our products is better than the last. Data and technology are powerful enablers and sources of strength for us in that effort.

You speak to two of the core promises we wanted to offer consumers in these upgraded apps: First, the ability to create personal streams of content and second, the ability to seamlessly engage with live news and moments that matter as they are happening.

Our content teams are amazing storytellers—and that capability is best represented in moments of live news coverage. We set out to showcase that strength in our upgraded apps. We want the apps to feel alive so we focused on an enhanced live streaming experience. It’s very easy for a user to discover and jump into multiple live streams, and our goal is to expand those offerings.

We also wanted to empower our audiences by giving them the tools to control their news experience. The app has a newsroom-curated top news feed, and we believe that is an essential aspect of what we do as a trusted news source. We also think it is important to let audiences explore, follow and keep up with the areas and topics most important to them resulting in personal streams of content [which is] titled “My News” in the app. We are also experimenting with AI as well as aggregation to make sure that experience becomes richer and more robust.

And we are seeing really positive results since we launched. In terms of downloads, video views and usage, we are experiencing dramatic, double-digit YOY [year-over-year] growth. In the first 16 days of this year, we have nearly eclipsed our total app uniques from January 2017. There is an increase in positive app reviews, and we are seeing a deeper level of engagement with fans spending between 10 and 30 minutes per visit in the app consuming OTT video and text, and also curating and personalizing their local news. We couldn’t be happier with viewers’ response and look forward to continuing to utilize our technology and data resources to deliver the best possible local news experiences.

TVT: The love affair of people, especially those in younger demographics, with their smartphones and tablets is radically transforming how people access news, information and entertainment. Can local broadcasters win those eyeballs back onto their main platform, i.e. TV? Should they even try? Or, should they simply accept what is happening in terms of preferences and pour increased resources into capitalizing on these digital platforms?

WM: Our local brands are intent on serving our audiences across all platforms. If a consumer chooses to engage with us on their smartphone, fantastic. If it’s a television set in their living room, great. Our goal is to meet and exceed their expectations at each touchpoint in the audience journey. If on a smartphone, the content is mobile-first, immediately available, less packaged and more “in-the-moment,” often short-form and easily digestible. If on TV, you can sit back and spend your morning with us, watching our local morning news and Good Morning America. When we understand and optimize for the needs of the audience by platform, all platforms win. The audience wins. The brands win.

TVT: ATSC 3.0 authorization opens multiple new opportunities for broadcasters. What will be your priorities regarding the next generation standard, from the points of view of deployment and business opportunities?

WM: I’m excited to dig into all the opportunities potentially afforded by 3.0, and I’ve asked my team to dig into both the business opportunities and the deployment options. I’ll be closely following the results from the Phoenix test market.

Given my background in digital, I am of course excited by the idea of creating better and more targeted experiences for our viewers [and] of enabling our advertisers to be even more sophisticated and surgical in their pursuit of relevant consumers. Bringing those uniquely digital qualities and attributes to linear television is very intriguing. 

TVT: Will the FCC’s recent elimination of its main studio rule affect ABC-Owned Television Stations? If so, how? Perhaps greater centralization of operations such as ingest, traffic, master control, playout. What about news production?

WM: We operate great local stations, and we’ll continue to operate those stations locally. Of course, I’m always interested in finding ways to better serve our viewers. Enabled by data and technology, I’ll be looking for ways to do just that.