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Video-pleasing iPad could help local TV

The newspaper and magazine industries have been hopeful that the iPad may offer a “fresh start” to charge for content. The idea would be to create an app experience so easy and so compelling, that users would be willing to pay for it.

At the Apple event, the New York Times gave an early demo of an iPad app that meshed a paper-like experience with seamlessly embedded video. And you can expect that many local newspapers are sure to follow the Times’ lead in the months to come, investing in their own iPad apps, most of them selling for a fee.

To me, there are some interesting implications and opportunities for local TV, which has been forgotten in all the media hubbub. After all, the device is tailor-made for video, and a local station could create a video-forward news app — and give it away for free.

It plays to local TV’s strengths on a number of fronts. First, there’s a wealth of original video. Local TV sites are adept at writing shorter-form text reporting, which integrates well with a stronger video presence. They lack decent photos, but on an iPad you might imagine embedded video players doubling as photos. Just touch to play.

Then there’s the financial side. Local TV can monetize video at a higher rate that newspapers can monetize text. This plays right in the free model: maximize distribution to drive higher ad revenue. To get the word out, local TV still has one of the most powerful promotional vehicles known to mankind: television. Done right, local stations could out-maneuver their newspaper competitors at their own tablet game. But even more important, stations can forge a new path to a demographic that’s watching less and less local TV news.

But there are two big challenges here. First, stations need to invest in developing iPad apps that, well, don’t suck. Historically (forgive me), local TV websites have done a very poor job creating clean, engaging user experiences. The iPad demands a sleek interface that thoughtfully juggles video and text in a touch environment, and this will require a sizable investment and a willingness to pay others to create a better product.

The second challenge is to offer video that goes beyond the standard local TV newscast package. For a variety of reasons, stations need to diversify and expand local programming in creative new directions. Sure, people want news, but they also want unique local lifestyle and entertainment programming that’s fresh, fun and informative — and in device-friendly formats that aren’t restricted to the standard minute-thirty TV news story with an anchor intro.

When you think about it, these are pretty tall challenges. And local newspapers will pursue the iPad and second-generation tablet devices with the passion of survival. But local TV stations, which in my mind are better positioned to succeed on the device, have a unique opportunity to play offense.

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