NBC Shifts New York O&O to All News

With only months away from the analog television shutdown, NBC Universal finally made a bold move. It will transition WNBC, its New York City O&O, into a 24-hour news channel.

If the experiment is successful, the network will follow with its O&Os in Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. This is a move to hyperlocalism—one designed to re-invent the major NBC stations before they are absorbed into the 500-channel abyss of pay television channels.

Whether the action works is another question, but one has to hand it to NBC Universal for at least trying. The overwhelming number of station owners are just sitting on their hands, doing business as usual, as the clock ticks away to February.

Significantly, the network said it would de-emphasize the identity of WNBC—Channel 4 in New York—by rebranding it a “content center.” The operation will provide local news coverage of the New York region, including New Jersey and Connecticut.

To begin airing in November after another renovation of the network’s Manhattan headquarters, the new channel will be carried on Time Warner, Cablevision and Comcast, along with a Web site to be rebranded “NBC New York.” The WNBC.com will disappear.

Significantly, the NBC news channel will also seek new advertising venues—spaces like gas pumps, the back seats of taxi cabs, and anywhere else an LCD display can be mounted.

John Wallace, NBC’s president of local media, cut to the chase in explaining the why of the WNBC transition to the New York Times. Local television, he said, “has a perception issue right now as to whether it is a sustainable business long term.”

Once a major source of cash, local stations now have an “eroding and aging” audience and have become “slow-growth business,” Wallace said.

Of course, we knew that. Most of us, anyway.

But the larger question with NBC’s transition is whether the “news” the network plans to offer will be genuine local news, or just more fluff added to the inane sea of video programming designed to sell ad space. It’s a major question that will have to wait to be answered.

As the Web has clearly demonstrated, more news—especially by large corporate news organizations—does not mean better news. In fact, it often means more duplication of information and opinion just to fill space and time.

Experiments in hyperlocalism by major news organizations, like NBC, also do not ensure commercial success for their owners. However, the movement of a station like WNBC to hyperlocalism, shows that NBC’s management at least recognizes the real strength of the local station in the digital era is local news and information. That realization alone has been a long time coming.

ABC News, on the same day that NBC made its announcement, said it is creating “digital bureaus” at five of the nation’s top journalism schools. The network, hoping to pick up some stories on the cheap, will also get to monitor the best of student journalists for its operation.

However, as good as these kind of experiments sound, it means nothing as far as the quality or depth of news content an organization brings to the viewers. As has been proven again and again, a single blogger—with a different motive than simply generating profits—has an equal opportunity of breaking through to the public.

The Internet has created a situation that pits individuals with something genuine to say against media establishments increasingly obsessed with making money. The spirit of Edward R. Murrow lives today in these individuals, not the network’s executive keepers. That change came when broadcasters began viewing news as a center for profits, rather than as a public service.

Whether a large organization like NBC can penetrate small towns and neighborhoods for the sort of real, down-home news that local viewers want is an open question. We’re not even sure they really want to.

It’s one thing to say you’re doing hyperlocal news, and another to do it successfully. As one who has worked for both small town daily newspapers and the networks, I can tell you they are different animals.

Local stories come from local relationships. Nosy neighbors offer as much local news as local public officials. Acquiring local news means reporters on beats who get to know the people. I question how many of NBC’s reporters have ever done this kind of work. But, I’ll keep an open mind.

In the meantime, the network should be commended for trying. It was a gutsy move to dismantle a highly profitable O&O before the end came. But, at least NBC Universal understood they had to. They got their head out of the sand. Others are not there yet.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.