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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

NBCU Local’s collaborative approach to streaming local news

November 2, 2023 | By Esther Kezia Thorpe – Independent Media Reporter @EstherKeziaT

We hear a good deal about news deserts and the struggles of local news. However, at least in the U.S., local broadcast news remains a bright spot. Yet, as audiences increasingly flock to streaming for what had long been broadcast-based content, NBCUniversal is focused on staying in front of the migration. The company’s launch of 15 new news channels on nine streaming platforms including Roku, Peacock, TCL and Xumo over the past two years is not just a strategic move to keep them future ready, it’s helping their local news offerings reach a more diverse audience now. 

In terms of strategy, of course, there is more to launching on streaming platforms than just technology. For NBCUniversal Local, it required careful planning and design of collaborative tools and tactics, as well as consistent communication to get staff on board both practically and philosophically.

NBC’s free ad-supported streaming television (FAST) channels were born out of the traditional linear broadcast and cable channels NBC already produces each day. But while the company leverages its existing content in its FAST offerings, they took a decidedly different approach according to Meredith McGinn, EVP of NBCU Local Media, Multicast Networks and Original Programming. “What we didn’t have in our portfolio was an all-news local channel,” she said, as she outlined their reasons for launching 24/7 local news channels in markets including New York, LA, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston.

They chose to stream partly to reach a younger audience. “But what we’re also seeing on these platforms is a more diverse audience in all demographics; age, race etc.,” said McGinn. “It was really important to reach a viewer who had either bought a new connected TV in the last three to five years, perhaps cut the cord, or was a  ‘cord never’ and didn’t have an easy linear always-on source for local news.”

A blank slate

Being early movers to local news streaming  has meant the team has had to work out both what the audience on streaming platforms want to see from a local news product, and what the best workflow is internally to deliver that. Angela Grande, Director of NBCU Local’s Streaming News Channels says they’ve experienced a lot of learning and had to move quickly in order to  figure out the best strategy. 

When launching a new newscast in a market, NBC typically includes in-market producers, writers and reporters for each location. But in this instance they took a different approach. “Instead of beefing up staff in each individual market to build a network from the ground up, we built a small central team,” McGinn explained. One reason for this was because the cloud server technology, cloud playout, virtual production control rooms, and other technology used to make the streams work was relatively new for the business. 

“[The technology] could be best tested with a tight central team that could then put the new process through its paces. Then spokes go out and train each of the stations and personnel on how to use this technology. As we get product updates or new product ideas, we can test them again with a central team, again put them through their paces and then roll out more widely.”

Designing the setup from a blank slate meant that the team could test and learn first, without legacy technology and processes from the rest of the business slowing them down. But it was not without its challenges. “As you’re working with new tools, you realize that they’re not quite built for what you need,” McGinn outlined. “So we hired producers who pretty much became product managers working with vendors on development. They’re really trying to improve the product significantly day in and day out.”

Workflow, staffing, collaboration

The tech stack and staffing were not the only area the team had the opportunity to reimagine from scratch. McGinn noted that they were able to behave more like a start-up, but with a lot of resources to leverage from the wider business. It helped that the team was very eager to embrace change and new ideas.

One of the biggest learning curves for Grande’s team was collaborating and communicating with dozens of news stations across the country. “We had to break down the walls of communication to be sharing content and breaking news,” she said. “We’ve built this central team here in South Florida that works with all the stations across the country on best communication workflows, and how to actually work with us as virtual members of their news groups.” 

To facilitate good communication and collaboration, the business set up Teams channels with every newsroom across the country. There are leaders on the central South Florida team who check in with ‘captains’ at each station on a daily basis. These check-ins and allowing the personal relationship to build  have been a crucial part in keeping the streaming product front-of-mind for the teams.

“When we were setting up the business, we talked a lot about structure and workflow,” said McGinn. “There was a lot of concern around the ‘out of sight out of mind’. If you’re not there in the newsroom, are you and the platform going to be forgotten?”

Grande noted that initially there were a lot of reminders needed for the local newsrooms when news broke to make sure the information came to the streaming teams as well. “Then, after a lot of that practice, we really started to get the communication flowing,” she said.

Now, the teams communicate around the clock. “Someone’s always available to answer. So, if news were to break in Philadelphia, they can say, ‘Hey, there’s breaking news here, we’re going to go live,’” Grande explained. “Then folks here on our team can respond and jump in to help support the live event as they break into the channel. It’s really wonderful to see just how smooth all the communication is there.”

Integrating Spanish language and broader markets

NBCUniversal Local initially launched a select few English streaming channels, in order to get some early audience data that it could build upon. “The data from Peacock showed us that we had significant out-of-market, out-of-city viewership for our channels,” McGinn explained. “So we were able to see, for instance, that our South Florida NBC channel was being viewed in New York, and while it’s based in Miami, it was being viewed in Tampa and Dallas and LA.”

As well as the English language channels, NBCUniversal Local also has four regional streaming channels which bring live local news in Spanish to Hispanics across the country: Noticias California, Texas, Florida and Noreste. The wider business division already has 30+ Spanish language Telemundo stations and were aware that there was a growing opportunity in providing a FAST local news service to an Hispanic audience in those markets.

“So we took that data and thought, why don’t we do a different approach for Telemundo [streaming]? Why don’t we combine the resources in certain regions and create regional news channels? To beef up the coverage and recognize that there are many viewers out there who are interested in a broader view of local news, not just one hyperlocal market.”

The improved communication has made it easier for the Spanish and English teams to share content. It has also helped collaboration with the Telemundo channel teams, who now build newscasts for the entire region. “It’s something that they’ve never done before that they’re now doing through new types of collaboration to create these great streaming products,” noted Grande. 

Sharing early successes

McGinn credits the instant messaging tools and channels like Teams with really helping to bring people together in the true spirit of collaboration. But she also noted that sharing early successes was just as important in cementing the new processes in people’s minds.

“As quickly as we received data from the platforms that proved to people that people are watching these channels, we shared that widely,” she said. “That told the newsrooms, ‘Oh, this is not just the latest social media fad that may be gone in a year. This is real, on-television viewing.’”

The successful set-up and centralized team to test and share technology means that additional expansion is on the cards. But the learnings go beyond NBC’s Local News initiatives in order to help keep the company ahead of the streaming pack. Importantly, this team is sharing its learnings with other divisions in the company. “We want to be able to help others launch channels and initiatives that they have,” McGinn concluded.

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