WBZ-TV’s move needs to be more than just marketing

One of the most important strategic moves any local media company can make to win the local Media 2.0 war is to take control of its own destiny and not rely entirely on third-party identity, networks or technology. Regular readers here probably won’t be surprised to learn that this is much harder than you might think, and it’s especially the case with the internet and local television.

In Boston, long time broadcasting icon WBZ-TV has decided it’s time to part ways with its marketing identity as CBS4 and return to using its call letters. CBS4 President and General Manager Ed Piette said the decision was easy.

“Employee feedback and comprehensive market research made it clear—combining the well respected, local identity of WBZ-TV with the strength of CBS, the #1 television network, is an important step in the station’s growth.”

Clearly, this move is a marketing decision, and it’s terribly smart. However, if Mr. Piette’s desire is genuinely to embrace a local identity, he’s going to have to disconnect more than just call letters from the network that owns his station.

There are great business advantages to group ownership, not the least of which is consolidation of services, systems and technology. But the paradox of group dynamics is that individuals lose their identity, so WBZ’s problem is more than its call letters. This is painfully apparent in the online world.

Some smart station groups are beginning to realize that the more online local media is controlled from a distance, the greater the difficulty in being flexible, adaptive and open to change. They’re also beginning to awaken to the great reality of networked websites and deals: much of the traffic comes from outside the market. Ad networks are interested in traffic, not necessarily local traffic. Advertisers are getting smarter, and the local stations are increasingly going to have difficulty in presenting their online “ratings” case to them.

This is one of the reasons I don’t think it’s necessarily smart of 176 newspapers to align with Yahoo to turn over local content to the big portal. They’ll get some revenue out of the deal, but the bigger issue is strategy. If people can get their local news via Yahoo, they don’t need to visit any property operated by the newspaper. You can argue that this is a necessary evil, and I’d agree with you in part. However, investing entirely in an unbundled strategy can backfire unless you’re very smart about what’s taking place beneath the surface (a.k.a. JD Lasica’s “personal media revolution”).

Moreover, I would argue that each community is unique and that to capture that identity online, local media companies must have control over their own technology and the people who run that technology. Every market has excellent programmers, Flash artists and, yes, the geek power to enable stations to do their own thing. The cost simply isn’t what it used to be, but cost really isn’t the point. Control is what’s missing in most television station web applications, and this can be fatal in trying to form a Media 2.0 strategy.

In Chicago, I work with the Bonneville radio station group — a very smart bunch of folks. Radio stations don’t produce a lot of web content, so they have to be able to tie their sites to ACTION that is originated on-the-air. Online interactivity is at the heart of the 2.0 disruption, and this group is able to create some remarkable and highly local applications, because they control everything about their sites, including the hosting. The group employs three PHP programmers who go with sales people on calls to advertisers, so that they can design, build and deploy cool and advertiser-centric web applications.

There is no opportunity to do this, if your web strategy is entirely controlled elsewhere.

The opportunities to do local media online are indeed remarkable. It’s a land grab right now, one that broadcasters are ceding to outside internet pure play companies simply because they won’t or can’t get in there are get their hands dirty.

WBZ story links: Lost Remote | Boston Herald

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