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Local TV's challenge to create shareable video

Updated: TVNewsCheck’s Harry Jessel wrote a column today that jokingly (?) calls on media companies everywhere to stop innovating for three years. “We need a breather,” he writes, “so we can figure out one thing before being forced to move on to the next.”

Jessel has a good point in there — it’s hard enough for national media companies to keep up, let alone local TV stations faced with a growing array of possibilities, from social media to apps on just about everything — iPhone, iPad, Android, Samsung TV…. Where to prioritize with limited resources?

And then there’s the old battle between TV and everything else. “If [local TV execs] actually tried to grasp the new media,” he writes, “they wouldn’t have much time for the old media. They have stations to run and that’s not as easy as it used to be, what with the new media shattering audiences into a million pieces.”

That argument always makes me shake my head. It’s the classic “either-or” trap heard daily in local TV hallways. But media fragmentation is precisely why local TV must experiment at a higher velocity, not take a breather. As Gordon Borrell says in Jessel’s piece, it’s about picking your battles and making hard decisions to abandon stuff that’s not working.

So what are those battles? As we approach 2011, I think local TV should focus on one thing: create compelling, original video programming that works for on-demand viewing just as well as it works for linear TV. Unique local programming with a longer shelf-life that people will share via social media.

The problem is, newscasts don’t fit that bill. They’re designed for live linear viewing, with a short shelf-life. Nobody really watches newscasts on-demand or even shortened webcast versions of newscasts. Most of the local news that people share on Facebook and Twitter is not video, but text and photos. Some of the craziest web clips from a newscast will draw an audience, but never at a large enough volume at a local level to drive real revenue — because, in part, three other TV stations are doing the same thing.

To me that’s an opportunity to create new kinds of local video programming that branch out beyond traditional news to local infotainment. Unique programming that people will talk about, share on Facebook and Twitter, participate in, and make a point to seek out on-demand to watch. A TV show that’s deconstructable into shareable pieces. Or better yet, shareable pieces that construct into a TV show. Video that can be watched for weeks or months, not just hours. And ideally, programming that has value for a national niche audience, as well. For example, in Seattle we’re known for the environment, the outdoors, philanthropy and interestingly, video gaming. Other markets have other specialties.

It also must be produced with a lower cost structure. Significantly lower.

In a time in which the TV syndication market is in doubt more than ever (Oprah!) and networks are distributing their shows elsewhere (Hulu!), it’s imperative that TV stations learn how to produce unique video content in a cost-effective way that can create new “off-platform” audiences at volume. Duplicating newscasts with new graphics, however, is not the answer.

To get there, station groups need to bring on creative programming talent from new sources, and this is where the cultural shift kicks in. Small production houses, local bloggers, popular Twitter accounts or even YouTube producers may be a better source of creative ideas than the station itself. They’re also much more comfortable producing video at a lower cost than traditional TV.

Then create a branded multiplatform “show”, distribute it via social media and low-cost video apps on the highest-priority platforms, and learn from what happens next. I believe the best shows will drive the most distribution, generating enough incremental revenue to shine a light on a new future of local TV.

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