Services like VUit, Stirr and CBSN Local look for ways to attract a younger generation of viewers.
One day in March, Patrick Enslow, a reporter for the NBC affiliate KTUU-TV in Anchorage, Alaska, sat at an alfresco news desk, dressed in a blue parka and surrounded by snow, and welcomed viewers to the station’s coverage of the 2021 Iditarod. Due to Covid-19, the famous dog-sledding race was proceeding with a few changes, including a shorter course and fewer mushers.
“It’s a different look,” Enslow told the audience. “No fans here. But we have plenty of dogs.”
Like a lot of big events during the pandemic, live attendance was out, but livestreaming was in.
For the first time, KTUU’s coverage of the Iditarod was being distributed around the country on VUit (pronounced “View It”), a new, ad-supported streaming service. Launched in the fall of 2020, VUit aggregates local programming and makes it available to a national audience on a range of platforms, including Android and iOS devices, Roku, AppleTV and Amazon Fire TV. According to the company, viewers in 178 different TV markets checked out KTUU’s various segments about the 2021 Iditarod.
KTUU is one of more than 200 stations in the U.S. that provides content to the service. VUit’s lineup is a mix of local newscasts, repurposed for a streaming audience, with fresh commercials inserted into the ad breaks, and original programming of all sorts created by reporters and producers at participating stations.
“We created this sort of local-to-national syndication,” said Jack Perry, founder and chief executive officer of Syncbak Inc., the closely held company that owns VUit. “Our focus is on helping our local broadcasters pump more content into the streaming ecosystem.”
VUit is part of a new group of streaming services, such as Stirr from Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. and CBSN Local from ViacomCBS Inc., aiming to cash in on a boom in streaming video advertising while grappling with a question that has bedeviled American media for years. How, in an era of streaming, do you hang on to viewers who once loyally watched chunks of local news each day via broadcast or cable TV? To date, despite all the hype over hyperlocal digital news, nobody has quite figured out how to hook the next generation of viewers on local, streaming content.
Colin Dixon, chief analyst and founder of the research firm NScreenMedia, says VUit appeals to local broadcasters hoping to develop a new source of revenue without having to shell out much additional investment in time, technology or marketing.
“They are seeing that younger people have disconnected from traditional TV,” Dixon said. “That means the local stations aren’t reaching them. These are all approaches to take the local TV assets, news assets in particular, and try to get them under the noses of younger people.”
Perry, an entrepreneur with a long track record in local news, started Syncbak in 2009. The company, which provides a broad range of video and ad streaming services to stations, maintains offices in New York City and Marion, Iowa. While the company counts Gray Television Inc., the owner of Alaska’s KTUU, as an investor, Perry said his goal is for VUit to work with all station groups.
Just recently, Hearst Corp. came on board, adding 27 local channels plus a national feed to VUit, joining the broader slate of stations from Gray, Meredith Corp.’s local media group, Morgan Murphy Media, Cowles Co. and Heritage Broadcasting.
“News is always breaking somewhere,” Perry said.
In the past, cost was an obstacle for smaller stations trying to reach a streaming audience, Perry said. His company built VUit with the smallest designated TV market area in the U.S. in mind — specifically Glendive, Montana.
“We thought if we can make it affordable for Glendive, then everyone all the way up to New York will take advantage of our technology,” he said. “One of the things that has slowed OTT adoption for small companies is that it’s so darn expensive. I figured let’s just make it free. That’s the winning formula.”
In addition to providing access to its news programs, participating local stations are encouraged to produce a minimum of 12 live events each year exclusively for VUit. The station and VUit split the resulting ad revenue. To help figure out what to stream, VUit has put together a team that works with the local stations and holds boot camps in New York.
“We teach the OTT mindset,” Perry said.
The strategy, in essence, is to try anything and see what works. High school sports. Class graduations. Snowmobile races. Food festivals. Regional concerts. Beer-chugging softball leagues. Dirt-bike racing.
“We tell our broadcasters, go put a webcam up on the Soo Locks and watch the boats go through,” said Perry. “If people want to watch that, great.”
Pat LaPlatney, president and co-CEO of Gray Television — which reached an agreement in June to buy Meredith’s stations for approximately $2.8 billion — says that ratings for local TV newscasts, particularly in small and midsize markets, remain strong. The challenge, he concedes, is grabbing the attention of younger viewers mesmerized by the latest offerings on TikTok or Twitch. Gray is continuing to experiment with different streaming formats.
Recently, the company rolled out a new streaming product called “Local News Live,” in which a news anchor appears on camera, mixing in feeds from across Gray’s portfolio of stations. “It’s a VJ kind of approach,” LaPlatney said. “Here’s an interesting story out of Boise. Here’s the sun setting in Honolulu, or Alaska or whatever.”
Gray stations now regularly feed content to VUit. LaPlatney says the app provides local newsrooms with another way of connecting to viewers and advertisers who otherwise might not have access to their work.
“Gray has a big investigation team based out of New Orleans,” he said. “Much of it ends up in our newscast. But there is a library of that stuff that a lot of people around the country would find interesting.” Those investigative pieces are now available on-demand on VUit.
Dixon, the analyst with nScreenMedia, said VUit can appeal to advertisers, in part, by promising a greater degree of brand safety built into the programming than you are likely to find on social media. The difficulty, he said, is trying to get younger viewers to turn off social media long enough to get hooked on a new and unfamiliar app. Public viewership data for services like VUit, Stirr and CBSN Local are scarce.
“When you do polls, you have to ask a lot of people before you start finding anyone saying that they are trying them,” he said. “So how many people are actually using these services? My gut says not many.”
Perry, for one, believes that with time, streaming local TV coverage will eventually take root with the next generation of viewers. “It just makes sense to me that it will be an appropriate complement to binge watching,” he said.
According to Perry, the average VUit user visits the app three times a day and spends an average of 21.4 minutes on the service each time.
“At some point, people are going to get a little tired of binge watching,” Perry said. “I think VUit stands a chance of being that companion destination where you hang out and watch, or don’t watch, but you have it on.”
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