Content Will Stay King

June 26, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Slowly but surely, the media landscape is melding together on a single Internet-based platform. Every local media outlet has some degree of Internet presence, and a majority of those are completely reproducing their core product online.

In the not-too-distant future, local media content may have its choice of distribution channels, and providers will be forced to reinvent themselves.

“For the past 40 years, television stations have been broadcasters,” said WZZM 13 President and General Manager Janet Mason. “In the future, and really even now, we are info-casters. We are serving the masses with our television programming, but we are also serving the individual.”

The Gannett-owned ABC affiliate was the first local media company to invest in pod-casting, and has since followed that audio product with a video pod-cast, in addition to streaming video on the station’s Web site.

WZZM was the region’s first triple threat, combining elements of print, audio and video into its online package, and has other content distribution channels in development.

“We have all these emerging media delivery platforms,” Mason said. “Now, it’s all about serving the customer the content in whatever way that customer wants it or demands it.”

Not only is virtually all of the station’s local content available online in a variety of formats, the network is offering some of its core content online as well, including the hit shows “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives.” Both the network’s and the local station’s content also are available for download at the online iTunes store.

“Television sets and computers will merge,” Mason said. “The households on the cutting edge already have. It won’t matter if it’s a computer or a PDA or a cell phone. Those are all just delivery mechanisms.”

Mason is extraordinarily confident for a woman whose business model appears to be crumbling beneath her. But she has good reason for that confidence. In the West Michigan market, the station is already largely functioning as an info-caster. Only 19 percent of households currently receive its broadcast signal; the rest receive the content via cable or satellite. For the roughly 60 percent of customers with cable, the station already competes with the Battle Creek/Kalamazoo ABC affiliate, WOTV 4.

With the station’s new digital broadcast signal, it currently sends out two channels, the standard channel 13 and the 13 On Target Weather Network available to digital receivers as channel 13-2. Mason said the station has the ability to broadcast as many as three more channels on that signal.

Even if a long-speculated Internet Protocol TV service were to deliver thousands of channels and fully replace broadcast television, WZZM would be solidly positioned with its local content channels against the narrowly focused cable channels.

“That will be the thing that will distinguish us,” Mason said. “Television stations on the local level — their niche will be the same as it always was: local content.”

On some levels, WZZM 13 and Clear Channel Radio are already competing with each other. WOOD Newsradio 1300 offers Associated Press video clips on its Web site. Country station B93.7 has video and audio clips of music performances. Another station, FOX affiliate WXMI-TV, has launched a 24-hour music channel, “The Tube,” on its channel 17-2 digital signal. Both the television and radio Web sites offer sports, weather and school closings.

“It’s another method of content delivery,” said Skip Essick, president and general manager of Clear Channel in Grand Rapids. “It’s an exciting initiative. We’re able to put our air product in places where it could not otherwise be heard.”

Particularly in the case of WOOD Newsradio, signals are sometimes unable to penetrate some of the office buildings in the region. The online product has filled those dead zones, allowing the station to be listened to as streaming audio. Some Clear Channel stations have more online listeners than competing stations have on the airwaves.

Essick agreed with Mason on the importance of local content.

“There is certainly enough national content,” he said. “So if content is king, then local content is the Grand Poobah.”

For the 15-paper weekly Advance Newspapers chain, local content is everything. Its model is to carve up the Grand Rapids metro area into localized units, delivering an edition customized to each. The paper shares The Grand Rapids Press’ online home, mlive.com, as a minority partner. Publisher Joel Holland isn’t concerned about how he will adapt his product to electronic media — he doesn’t plan to.

“I think print media is here to stay,” he said. “I absolutely disagree that the newspaper industry is going to disappear. The Web will compete with other Web sites. But people are still going to want community news, what is happening at church, the township and where they live. …

“You get national news all day long in a thousand different ways. It’s the local content that is important.”

Reluctantly, GRNow Web site owner Josh Depenbrok agreed.

“There will still be a desire for newspapers,” he said. “They’ll just be more limited.”

Depenbrok has been working to turn his site into a media outlet, he said, as opposed to a directory or calendar. Primarily, he has focused on the 18- to 35-year-old demographic. 

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