How experiments with streaming put viewers first

A Scripps station goes over the moon for ‘over the top’

Is on-demand streaming the future of local TV news?

At KGUN-TV, Scripps’s Tucson station, you might certainly think so. Digital director Laura Kittell has even tinkered with the station’s familiar tagline: “We’re ‘KGUN 9 On Your Side,’” she says. “We’re using a new twist on that, which is ‘KGUN 9 On Your Time.’”

But for Kittell and news director Leeza Starks, OTT is not just a convenience for viewers. It’s an opportunity to experiment aggressively with new programming driven by new technology — and a way to deepen ties with the community. And all in market #65, not Phoenix or San Diego. “While it’s beautiful, what those large markets are doing, we know we can’t do that,” Starks says. “But we want to use the tools. So how can we still have something of value and meaning without disrupting our current workflow at our current staffing levels? Because it’s already pretty tight.”

So for example, every Wednesday, the station produces a new 30-minute show strictly for streaming called The Rebound Arizona. And when I say “the station,” I really mean digital EP Sam Radwany, who knocks out the program by himself in about three hours, using technology from Softron that the newsroom acquired just six months ago. Radwany simply “drags and drops” story files to string together KGUN’s most popular reports — as measured by digital metrics across platforms — about people and businesses coping with the pandemic. (The Rebound is a company-wide initiative that each Scripps station can tailor to its own needs; our report on it was one of our most widely read stories last year.)

“We wanted to really expand our OTT unique content and offerings,” Starks says. “It just made logical sense for us to say, ‘Well, we’re doing this great enterprise work. Let’s turn it into a very simple 30-minute show.’” Simple it is, with basic wipes between stories and minimal if any anchor involvement — substance over slickness.

The same goes for KGUN’s daily OTT news “wheel,” a 30-minute news summary called KGUN 9 Now, mixing local reports with national content provided by Scripps. KGUN 9 Now is updated several times and repeated multiple times a day on all the usual streaming platforms. Anchors and reporters record custom headlines, intros and tags for the wheel, and there is local weather too. “So we have the ability to make it whatever we want it to be,” Starks says. “And the way we have designed it is [that] part of the duty of our executive producers for each shift is to make sure they’re dragging and dropping and making those choices, essentially stacking a show for digital.”

KGUN’s Megan Meier (Cronkite grad!) reports for the KGUN 9 Now streaming news “wheel.”

But the station also streams live coverage of news conferences, public hearings and other newsworthy events. Every day, “we decide what stories we’re going to follow,” Kittell says. “And what we’re streaming on OTT is a big part of that.” Sometimes a reporter or anchor is involved, but the station often lets the live stream speak for itself. “If it’s a complicated issue, we have somebody there who explains what’s just been said, what that really means,” Kittell says. “So we’re still performing our job as the media in helping viewers understand what’s happening, and we’re satisfying this need for everybody to know everything right now.”

Ironically, covering these live events on OTT is a job made easier by the pandemic, when most meetings are virtual. “The pandemic has allowed us to share more content with our viewers in a way that we’ve never been able to before,” Starks says. “I believe that this is what we’re going to continue to see even after the pandemic has some resolution. I think this is a really smart way, especially for markets our size, to cover so much more. And I think it’s wonderful for our communities.”

Leeza Starks and Laura Kittell

Like any innovation, KGUN’s ambitious OTT strategy has brought new challenges and some unintended consequences. Last June, the station was streaming a Tucson Police Department news conference about a suspect’s in-custody death when the police suddenly began showing graphic, unedited body camera footage of the incident. Starks was horrified and decided the station would institute a new policy NOT to stream potentially violent body cam footage without vetting it first.

In the spirit of transparency, Starks posted a note about the new policy on Facebook as well as the station’s website. “I really thought it would be 50/50 in terms of reaction,” Starks says. “Half of the viewers would be upset that we aren’t just showing it all, and the other half would understand and be supportive. I’d say 99.9% of them were upset with our decision. The pushback we got was honestly pretty cruel. But we’re sticking with our decision.”

Starks and Kittell are also sticking with their commitment to enrich KGUN’s array of OTT programs. Coming soon: Absolutely Arizona, another half-hour show pulled together from several years’ worth of a popular Monday evening broadcast feature reported by anchor Pat Parris. This time, digital producer Joey Greaber will be the one-man-band behind the curtain.

And KGUN has joined Table Stakes, the challenge-based coaching program for local TV newsrooms that’s part of the same Knight Foundation innovation grant that supports our work here at the Lab. KGUN’s “challenge” is to come up with unique local streaming content — to “increase our original programming and think about it in a different way,” Starks says. That means upending the traditional model of creating for broadcast and “repurposing” for digital.

“We’re putting that idea on its head,” Kittell says. “So we’re going to produce a special for OTT: text over video, nat packages, that kind of presentation that really resonates well. Once that airs on OTT as a live streaming option or playback option, then it will be cut up and air over a series of weeks on broadcast. And each time it airs, it will be pushing back to our OTT channels.”

“We want to make it look and feel like a digital product,” Starks adds, “recognizing that the audience may be a little different than our broadcast audience. We’re still trying to figure out how we’re going to make sure we’re meeting them where they want to be.”

Successful innovation begins with a willingness to examine how we do things now — and then reimagine them. KGUN’s early moves into OTT prove you don’t have to be big to have big ambitions — as long as you’re not afraid to challenge conventional formulas and simply try new stuff. Starks and Kittell are gung ho streaming evangelists who plan to keep experimenting — and their enthusiasm is palpable. “There are a million things we haven’t even thought of yet that we’re going to be able to do with this,” Starks says. “But we want to be smart about how we’re venturing into this arena.”

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