Finding the sweet spot in local news streaming

WNBC’s new OTT ‘digicast’ blends linear and digital storytelling

“I would contend that the news space is effectively wide open in the streaming world,” says SmithGeiger president and research guru Seth Geiger in a newly published conversation with TVNewsCheck’s Michael Depp. “It is critical that broadcasters be able to deliver their content in all the places where audiences are congregated, and there is no more momentum than there is in streaming.”

One station that doesn’t need the pep talk is New York’s WNBC. The NBC flagship just launched a daily 10-minute(ish) newscast designed primarily for streaming (OTT, or over the top) consumption — specifically Roku and Apple TV. Actually, I should say re-launched. We told you about News 4 Now’s first incarnation more than two years ago. Back then, it was a two-minute news summary relying mostly on YouTube for viewers, but last year, News 4 Now became a casualty of COVID — shelved as the station focused on maintaining its core broadcast products.

Watch an episode of “News 4 Now”

With pandemic pressures easing, WNBC made bringing back the “digicast” a priority, for a simple reason that other stations all over the country are starting to address as well. “What has happened since is that OTT has really exploded for us,” says Ben Berkowitz, VP of digital for WNBC and its Telemundo sibling, WNJU. “The growth has been extraordinary.”

In fact, Berkowitz estimates that views on Roku and Apple are seven or eight times what they were before the huge growth spurt in 2019, with those two streamers alone now accounting for as many views as all of WNBC’s digital platforms combined five years ago.

Even more remarkable is the amount of video that viewers consume on OTT platforms compared to other digital options. “If you look at traditional digital platforms — desktop, mobile web, app — and then you look at OTT platforms — Roku, Apple TV, etc. — the average OTT visitor watches 27 times more video than the average visitor to a traditional platform,” Berkowitz says.

Wait — WHAT??

“Yeah, it’s extraordinary,” he continues. “We spent a lot of time crunching those numbers because they were so astronomical, we sort of didn’t trust them at first, but they’re real. They’re absolutely real. It’s 27x.”

Numbers like that convinced NBC to develop new content for OTT and to spend money on marketing, especially on Roku. “A double-digit percentage of our monthly consumption is just Roku. And we know that the audience is highly, highly engaged and will watch lots of news programming at great length,” Berkowitz says.“They’ll watch news, they’ll watch lifestyle, they’ll watch a lot of weather, they’ll watch investigative. It really started to look viable really quickly, and that’s what gave us the confidence to make some investments. And those investments paid incredibly handsomely.”

The newly reinvented News 4 Now has a simple format that shows its linear roots every bit as much as its digital DNA. There’s an anchor along with a meteorologist; six or seven news stories, mostly voice-overs with an occasional sound bite peppered in; and two packages, one usually a news feature and the other a cutdown of a story from the station’s 11:30 a.m. lifestyle program, New York Live.

Like many successful innovations in TV news, News 4 Now balances the tension between what worked before and what needs to change rather than discarding all that’s tried and true. “It’s not just a digital show. It’s not just a linear show,” Berkowitz says. “It’s everybody putting their heads together and saying, ‘Okay, we make news for all platforms. We don’t just make linear newscasts, we make newscasts for everybody.’ And so getting all those heads in one room and saying, ‘Okay, what’s the OTT version of that show, as opposed to the linear version of that show?’”

Watch an episode of “News 4 Now”

Even the staffing is a hybrid: Christian Stapleton, a newsroom content producer with multiple other broadcast duties, writes the show and shoots the studio standups with 11 a.m. anchor Adam Kuperstein and meteorologist Maria LaRosa. Then Linda Gaudino of Berkowitz’s 11-member digital team takes over to assemble the final product, which posts sometime around 5 p.m. “It’s got classic news writing, but from a writer who happens to have a digital sensibility, and then digital production values,” Berkowitz says.

That means that Kuperstein speaks in a more informal style and (of course) doffs his tie. There’s a subtle music bed, along with custom graphics and sound effects. Perhaps more important, the team selects the stories with a digital audience in mind. “There are certain linear stories that just don’t hold the digital audience’s interest,” Berkowitz says — routine crime and fire coverage, for example. “The linear lead story might be Newark schools reopening; the digital lead story might be a vigil for [the late rapper] DMX. Because that’s what the digital audience really cares about,” Berkowitz says. Last week, “the audience for DMX was 11 times the audience for Prince Philip.”

Tie-free “News 4 Now” anchor Adam Kuperstein

Berkowitz says it’s too early to share viewership data, but the new incarnation of News 4 Now is doubling the audience of its pre-pandemic predecessor, with a completion rate of seven-plus minutes — impressive for a 10-minute show. “The early numbers are very, very encouraging,” Berkowitz says. “They prove that this is not a fluke.”

News 4 Now is also available on all of WNBC’s other digital outlets. “It is a combination of the right length, the right mix of content, but then also the right distribution strategy,” Berkowitz says. WNBC’s Roku channel has lots of other video content, of course, but Berkowitz believes that News 4 Now hits a sweet spot for the platform’s news watchers. “This really is their newscast. This is the OTT newscast for that audience who’s coming home or coming back to a TV at the end of the day and saying, ‘What happened today?’ It was really about giving them as much newscast as they were willing to consume, where they wanted to consume.”

NBC’s owned station in Philadelphia, WCAU, started its own “digicast” called The Lineup for OTT platforms in January; the company says other NBC and Telemundo stations will be introducing their own versions later this year. Also in January, WNBC became the first station to start producing two daily local cut-ins for LX, the company’s streaming and broadcast channel designed for younger viewers. And just yesterday, NBC announced that all its stations will be offering news “playlists” to the company’s own Peacock streaming service.

So streaming is “absolutely critical,” in Seth Geiger’s words. But a cautionary note for other stations about to embark on their own OTT adventures: A key element to digital innovation and ultimate success is “being willing to take chances” and keep adapting, Ben Berkowitz says. “You wouldn’t necessarily think of the flagship NBC station in New York City as the place to experiment and play around and be willing to try and be willing to fail and be willing to try again. Try vertical, horizontal, short, long, colorful, serious. And just take the audience’s pulse and then take the stuff that works. And double down on it, triple down on it, don’t be afraid to reboot things every six months, every year, change the format, go shorter, go longer.”

Case in point: Berkowitz’s team has been honored two years in a row by the Local Media Association — for best video strategy and then a year later, best social media strategy. The first award mentioned the original version of News 4 Now — now completely overhauled — and both awards cited a breezy news summary called Listen Up that has had multiple iterations (we reported on the first one here) but now appears on IG Reels, Instagram’s answer to TikTok. “We’ve blown that show up four times in three years,” Berkowitz says. “And it’s doing as well as it ever has. Because as the audience’s tastes change, and as their platforms change, as their appetites change, we change with them.”

Buckle up.

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