Local Media Slowly Learn To Harvest Digital Gold

Local television stations are sitting on prime digital real estate at a time when consumers cherry-pick content, marketing and information according to their personal tastes and locale. Yet, broadcasters are struggling to shift their grassroots gold to the Internet.

Their future depends on it.

"It is local broadcast TV's game to lose," observes veteran Bear Stearns analyst Victor Miller, who has tracked the television and radio business for more than a decade. This is a critical turning point for TV station owners, who are scrambling to replace existing advertising revenues being siphoned by their own affiliated networks, local newspapers, Internet service providers and other new-media platforms. As it turns out, transferring their unmatched local connections and expertise to the Web to generate new consumer and advertiser interest is a challenge.

Some newspapers are aggressively adapting by adding video to their text-centric Web sites as they fight to preserve and capitalize on the same local leverage. Newspapers generally have outperformed local television stations at generating online ad revenues, which are the fifth and fastest-growing of all ad platforms. Nearly $30 billion in overall online ad spending this year will surpass billboards, cable, radio and Yellow Pages.



Broadcasters must better position themselves strategically to secure their share of online ad dollars and consumers from such unlikely competitors as Craigslist to Google. Online will represent 10% of local television advertising dollars by 2010--or twice what it is today, according to Gordon Borrell, CEO of Borrell Associates, a media research and consulting firm. In 2007, online sales are expected to be as much as 10.7% of gross revenues at the Washington Post Co.'s newspapers, 6% of gross revenues from combined newspaper and television efforts at Gannett, and only 2.4% of gross revenues at Hearst-Argyle television, Borrell reports. Of the $7.5 billion in overall annual domestic local online ad spending, newspapers grab 36%--while TV stations only garner 7.7%, Borrell reports. Clearly, local television is losing online ad dollars to pure-play Internet players such as Google and Yahoo, which collectively siphon 33.2% of total U.S. local online advertising.

Other TV station owners need to aggressively put their core competencies to work if they want to see any of the online video revenues that will comprise 35% of total local online revenues by 2010. But those initiatives must be made now.

Too often, local television and newspapers have been their own worst enemy--impeded by an attitude that digital technologies are a disruption rather than a new business opportunity. That doesn't happen simply by extending television content and advertising to the Web. Innovative new forms of both are required to sustain their existing businesses and create new net growth.

The estimated $1 billion in annual classified advertising that newspapers are losing to online platforms is a dramatic example of what not to do, in terms of taking industry stature for granted or trying to transfer a service from a static to an interactive platform without changing it accordingly.

Next year's elections will be a similarly pointed test for broadcasters.

Should some television executives pioneer an inventive way to engage consumers in political grandstanding online, they might begin generating some meaningful revenues to offset steady losses in more traditional venues. Even now, only one-quarter of the local media companies with Web sites recently surveyed by Borrell generated more than $1 million in gross annual revenues online, and only 6.6% had Web sites generating more than $10 million.

In a surprising twist, Borrell reports that some of the smaller market broadcasters are among the top performers, although the estimated $89 million in ad dollars generated from television station Web sites this year represents only 25% of the money spent by local advertisers on online video ads. In what appears to dramatically underscore the base cost differences between traditional and online media platforms, 68% of the 570 local broadcasters surveyed by Borrell said their nascent Web sites were already profitable.

If their financial fortunes this year are any indication, local TV stations cannot afford to give up any revenue ground.

Analysts cite a secular shift toward more national campaigns and growing fragmentation of consumers and advertisers across alternative media platforms, as the Internet increasingly rivals television as the most efficient and effective way to reach a wide audience. Even with about two-thirds of their advertising revenues coming from national sources, TV station owners are feeling the pinch as the credit crunch squeezes local real estate, financial, home construction and other related businesses' ad spending, which is expected to worsen in coming quarters. Overall, TV station revenues are down nearly 10% from a year ago.

Television stations in general will barely hang on to their collective $26 billion in ad spending by 2011, according to a new forecast from Veronis Suhler Stevenson.

This is not just another lull before a quadrennial election and Olympics year. "Today's industry is at a pivotal point," Miller says.

For now, companies with both newspaper and television properties may be growing the fastest online as they more fully rationalize their resources from two core operations for video on demand, classified and display advertising. Although Gannett and Belo reported that their overall online advertising revenues were up 14% and 18%, respectively, their TV Web revenues each grew 40% in the second quarter--partly because they are incorporating more video elements.

Some of that strength also could be attributed to both companies' news dominance, although many TV stations have been unable to monetize or maintain the local news leverage they once enjoyed. News and other local content has unique consumer appeal, and can assume an intriguing interactive dimension online and command premium pricing with advertisers--all as a potent counter to the fading support stations are getting from their affiliated broadcast networks.

However, Miller and Borrell caution broadcasters to avoid the "trap of upselling current advertisers" by sensitizing their sales force to price and peddle interactive branding differently. Another Borrell report earlier this year forecast that video advertising and paid search will dominate the local Web by 2012. In order to secure its share of the wealth, local TV broadcasters must view and sell their Web sites as more than a crossover platform medium where they can simply extend existing traditional advertisers and content.

In five years, local online video advertising will top $5 billion, or more than one-third of all local online advertising. "Where will that money go?" Borrell asks. "Not to the purveyors of traditional 'word from our sponsor' commercials, but to those who can offer long-form video information that their Web site visitors actually chose to see."

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