The question is whether it will learn from its past. That's right, NBC's deal with Premiere Retail Networks isn't the first time it's ruffled its feathers in the retail media space. Anyone remember NBC On-Site? I do. I was a young reporter at Advertising Age when I wrote what was likely the longest media venture profile story every published by the venerable trade magazine. That venture, a partnership with grocery giant Flemming Industries, cost NBC and parent General Electric millions in start-up costs before it eventually pulled the plug, amid a broader shake-out in what were then called "place-based" media networks.
NBC was not alone. Turner Broadcasting sunk millions into the Checkout Channel and even dabbled with a McDonald's TV network, before it pulled those plugs. This was during the pre-Internet, early 1990s, when big TV outlets were looking to expand their shelf space, and didn't have the Web to contend with. Physical space seemed like a good idea for extending their franchise. Pioneering Whittle Communications had already paved the way with networks on college campuses, in doctors' offices and even in public schools. In fact, Whittle's Channel One is one of the few survivors of the first wave of place-based television, though it has since changed hands from Whittle to Primedia and now to Alloy Media. The only other significant out-of-home television network from that period to actually make a go of it is CNN's Airport Network.
Among the problems that beset those early incarnations were some important proximity-based issues, and high capital costs. The emergence of low-cost digital screens, wi-fi and broadband access has mitigated the cost part of the equation. Proximity issue can still be an important factor. Both NBC On-Site and the Checkout Channel ultimately checked out, partly because they could not figure the whole silent TV thing, when it turned out that both patrons and retail workers weren't especially fond of the same audio tracks being looped over and over again. It was so irritating, in fact, that many stores simply pulled the plug.
A new generation of retail networks, equipped with superior technologies, is finding solutions to those and other technical problems, but the burgeoning out-of-home network marketplace still must contend with the lack of standards defining programming, advertising and formats in a myriad of locations. That, of course, is one of the first charges of the fledgling Out-of-home Video Advertising Bureau (OVAB), which wants to be for place-based television what the CAB was for cable TV, or the IAB was for the online industry. Smartly, OVAB has tapped a cable TV pro -- Kim Norris -- to get it started. That's smart, because out-of-home video networks are television -- they're just television in new and different locations.
Local sensitivities, of course, are not new to television networks. NBC and its ilk have always had to deal with content, advertising, technical and logistical issues unique to the 200-plus markets where their affiliates reside. Occasionally, they experienced some fall-out, lost some coverage -- and in some extreme circumstances -- some advertising and programming content. But in the long run, it has been the cohesiveness of the network structure that has enabled broadcast and cable networks to thrive, even amid an onslaught of new and fragmenting media. The only question is whether they have learned from its past, and now understand what makes TV work inside stores -- where it didn't work before.