February 25, 2011

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Here’s a great idea for local TV news departments: start streaming, 24/7/365, on the Net. You don’t need to have first-rate stuff, and it doesn’t all have to be live. Loop fifteen minutes of news, weather and sports to start. Bring in local placeblog and social media volunteers. Whatever it takes: you figure it out.  Just make it constant, because that’s what TV was in the first place, and that’s what it will remain after the Internet finishes absorbing it, which will happen eventually. Now’s the time to get ahead of the curve.

Here’s why I thought of this idea:

. Far as I know it’s the only serious TV that’s live, streaming 24/7/365 on the Net. I watch it on the iPad wherever we have it… in the car, on a cabinet in the bedroom, or — in this case — on the kitchen counter, next to the stove, where I was watching it while making breakfast yesterday morning. That’s when I shot the photo.

At our place we don’t have a TV any more. Nor do a growing number of other people. Young people especially are migrating their video viewing to the Net. Meanwhile, all the national “content” producers and distributors are tied up by obligations and regulations. Try to watch NBC, CBS, ABC, TNT, BBC or any other three- or four-letter network source on a mobile device. The best you can get are short clips on apps designed not to compete with their cable channels. Most are so hamstrung by the need to stay inside paid cable distribution systems (or their own national borders) that they can’t sit at the table where Al Jazeera alone is playing the game.

That table is a whole new marketplace — one free of all the old obligations to networks and government agencies. No worries about blackouts, must-carries and crazy copyright mazes, as long as it’s all the station’s own stuff, or easily permitted from available sources (which are many).

Savor the irony here. Al Jazeera English is the only real, old-fashioned TV channel you can get on a pad or a smartphone here in the U.S. It’s also the best window on the most important stuff happening in the world today. And it’s not on cable, which is an increasingly sclerotic and soon-to-be marginalized entertainment wasteland. A smart local TV station can widen the opportunities that Al Jazeeera is breaking open here.

Speaking as one viewer, I would love it if , , , , or had a live round-the-clock stream of news, sports, weather and other matters of local interest. We happen to live at a moment in history — and it won’t last long — when ordinary folks like me still look to TV stations for that kind of stuff, and want to see it on a glowing rectangle. Now is the time to satisfy that interest, on rectangles other than those hooked up to antennas or set-top boxes.

And if the TV stations don’t wake up, newspapers and radio stations have the same opportunity. Hey, already puts Dennis and Calahan on . Why not put them on the Net? And if NESN doesn’t like that (because they’re onwed by Comcast), WBZ can put  on a stream. The could play here.  So could and . ‘BUR already has an iPhone app. Adding video would be way cool too.

The key is to make the stations’ video streams a go-to source for info, even if the content isn’t always live. What matters is that it leverages expectations we still have of TV, while we still have them.

And hey, TV stations, think of this: you don’t have to interrupt programming for ads. Run them in the margins. Localize them. Partner with Foursquare, Groupon, Google or the local paper. Whatever. Have fun experimenting.

Yesterday , the king of local TV consultants (and a good friend) put up a post titled The Tactical Use of Beachheads. Here are his central points and recommendations:

There is, I believe, a way to drive the car and fix it at the same time, but it requires managers to step outside their comfort zone and behave more like leaders. The mission is to establish beachheads ahead of everybody else, so that when the vision materializes, they’ll be prepared to monetize it. This is a risk, of course. There’s no spreadsheet, no revenue projections to manage, no best practices, no charts and graphs, because it’s not about seeing who can outsmart, outthink or outspend the next guy; it’s all about anticipating new value and going for it. The risk, however, can be mitigated if the beachheads are based on broad trends.

This can be very tough for certain groups, because we’re so used to being able to hedge bets with facts and processes. Here, we’re leapfrogging processes to intercept a moving target. It’s Wayne Gretzky’s brilliant tactic of “skating to where the puck is going to be,” instead of following its current position.

In our war for future relevance, here are five beachheads we need to establish in order to drive our car and fix it at the same time. Four of them relate to content that, we hope, will be somehow monetized. The fifth deals specifically with enabling commerce via a form of advertising.

  1. Real Time Beach — It is absolutely essential that media companies understand that news and information is moving to real time, and that real time streams are what will really matter tomorrow. It’s already happening today, but until somebody makes big money with it, we’ll continue to emphasize that which we CAN make money with, the front-end design of our websites. These streams take place throughout the back end of the Web, and they will make their way to the front end, and soon. There are early signs of advertising in the stream, and we should be experimenting with this, too. This is an unmistakable trend, and if we don’t move and move fast, it’s one I’m afraid we’ll lose.
  2. Curation Beach — Examples like Topix above show that curation beach is really already here, although I’d call those types of applications “aggregators.” They’re dumb in that they’re simply mechanical aggregators of that which is — for the most part — being published by others. Curation is more the concept of helping customers make sense out of all the real time streams that are in place. We’re all using the streams of social media, for example, to “broadcast,” but the real value is to pay attention and curate. This is a beachhead ready for the taking.
  3. Events Beach — One of the key local niches still left for the taking is the organizing of all events into an application that helps people find and participate. The ultimate user application here will be portable, for it must meet the needs of people already on-the-go. I refer to this beachhead as “event-driven news,” and it is largely created and maintained by the community itself. Since many events dovetail with retail seasons, this is easily low-hanging beachhead fruit.
  4. Personal Branding Beach — If everybody is a media company then media is everybody. This is a fundamental reality within which we’re doing business today, and it presents a unique opportunity for us and our employees. The aggregation of personal brands is a winning formula for online media, and we should be exploiting it before somebody else does. Our people are our strongest asset for competing in the everybody’s-a-media-company world, and we have the advantage of a bully pulpit from which to advance their personal brands. This is more important than most people think, because the dynamic local news brands of tomorrow will be associated with the individual brands of the community. The time to begin establishing this beachhead is now.
  5. Proximity Advertising Beach — The mobile beachhead is both obvious but obscured, because we’re all waiting for somebody to show us how to do it. This could be a real problem, for we know what happened when we allowed the ad industry itself to commodify banner advertising. Outsiders set the value for our products. The same thing is likely to happen here, unless we stake out territory for ourselves downstream first. There are predictions that mobile CPMs will hold at between $15-$25, and that’s enough to make any mobile content creator smile, but I would argue that the real money hasn’t even been discovered yet, because these CPMs are merely targeted display. Remember that the Mobile Web is the same Web as the one that’s wired, and it behaves the same way. The new value for mobile is proximity, and that’s where we need to be focusing. Let’s do what we can to make money with mobile content, but let’s also establish a beachhead in the proximity marketing arena, too, because that’s where this particular puck is headed.

If we approach these beachheads entirely with the question “where’s the money,” we’re likely to miss the boat. This strategy is to get us ahead of that and let the revenue grow into it. None of these will break the bank, and they’ll position us to move quickly regardless of which direction things move or how fast.

Live local streaming on the Net is a huge beachhead. I see it on that kitchen iPad, which only gives me Al Jazeera when I want to know what’s going on in the world. The next best thing, in terms of moving images, is looking out the window while listening to the radio. Local TV can storm the beach here, and build a nice new business on the shore. And navigating the copyright mess is likely to be lot easier locally over the Net than it is nationally over the air or cable. (Thank you, regulators and their captors.)

And hey, maybe this can give Al Jazeera some real competition. Or at least some company on TV’s new dial.

[Later...] Harl‘s comment below made me dig a little, so I’m adding some of my learnings here.

First, if you’re getting TV over the Net, you’re in a zone that phone and cable companies call “over the top,” or OTT.  ITV Dictionary defines it this way:

Over-the-top - (OTT, Over-the-top Video, Over-the-Internet Video) – Over-the-top is a general term for service that you utilize over a network that is not offered by that network operator. It’s often referred to as “over-the-top” because these services ride on top of the service you already get and don’t require any business or technology affiliations with your network operator. Sprint is an “over-the-top long distance service as they primarily offer long distance over other phone company’s phone lines. Often there are similarities to the service your network operator offers and the over-the-top provider offers.

Over-the-top services could play a significant role in the proliferation of Internet television and Internet-connected TVs.

This term has been used to (perhaps incorrectly) describe IPTV video also. See Internet (Broadband) TV.

But all the attention within the broadcast industry so far has been on something else with a similar name: over-the-top TV (not just video) which is what you get, say, with Netflix, Hulu, plus Apple’s and Google TV set top boxes. Here’s ITV Dictionary’s definition:

Over-the-top-TV - (OTT) – Over-The-Top Home Entertainment Media – Electronic device manufacturers are providing DVD players, video game consoles and TVs with built-in wireless connectivity. These devices piggy back on an existing wireless network, pull content from the Internet and deliver it to the TV set. Typically these devices need no additional wires, hardware or advanced knowledge on how to operate. Content suited for TV can be delivered via the Internet. These OTT applications include Facebook and YouTube. Also see Internet-connected TVs.

No wonder TVNewsCheck reports Over-The-Top TV at Bottom of Station Plans. Stations are still thinking inside the box, even after the box has morphed into a flat screen. That is, they still think TV is about couch potato farming. The iPhone and the iPad changed that. Android-based devices will change it a lot more. Count on it.

Since Al Jazeera English is distributed over the top by , I checked to see what else LiveStation has. They say they have apps for CNBC, BBC World News and two other Al Jazeera channels, but on iTunes (at least here in the U.S.) only the three Al Jazeera channels are listed as LiveStation offerings. LiveStation does have its own app for computers (Linux, Mac and Windows), though; and it has a number of channels (not including CNBC) at . I just tried NASA TV there on my iPhone, and it looks good.

Still, apps are the new dial, at least for now, so iPhone and Android apps remain the better beachhead for local stations looking for a new top, after their towers and cable TV get drowned by the Net.