TBD: Not Just a Website

Lost in the coverage (including mine) of the much-ballyhooed launch of TBD.com is the fact that a revamped cable channel launched in Washington, D.C., too.

NewsChannel 8, a pioneer among local cable news operations, is no more.  Taking its place is TBD TV with Steve Chaggaris at the helm as V.P. of Cable News (@stevechaggaris, bio).

Rarely does an opportunity come along to rebuild a television news operation from the ground up. Even more uncommon is the tail wagging the dog: A decidedly fresh website serving as the mold for the TV station, rather than a TV station creating a website in its image.

Chaggaris and I got a chance to sit down together a few weeks ago — and he recognizes this as a chance to revolutionize the way things have always been done.  [Video after the jump.]

“It’s been the same formula for 40 years,” he noted.  “Why not take this opportunity to try something new?”

Of course, it’s never that easy. Complicating matters is the fact that NewsChannel 8 had a loyal existing audience, particularly in the mornings.  It may not be that large compared to traditional broadcast stations in the market, Chaggaris told me, but it’s something his management team had to factor in.

Among his planned improvements, in addition to the requisite new graphics:

  • The morning newscast is “Driving the Day” in its coverage.  In fact, its on-air graphics re-emphasize this fact.
  • The mid-day political talk show will feature new tools to engage its audience.
  • TBD web reporters will carry along HD mini-cams to provide footage to the TV operation.
  • Bloggers tied into the TBD.com community network are being asked to add a webcam and Skype capabilities so they can be included in on-air conversations.
  • Streaming video will (hopefully) make its way to TBD.com.
  • And zoned editions (one for MD, one for DC, one for VA) may return down the road.

Yes, he says, they’ll implement the “stuff” people in younger demos are using, such as Twitter.  But they’re “not about using it as a gimmick,” nor are they shooting for a younger demo.  They’re going for an engaged demo.

Melanie Hastings: A former NewsChannel 8 anchor, turned TBD TV star.

Chaggaris also talks admiringly of the “natural marriage” between TV and the web — an area of great interest to me.  That is, TV audiences peak in the morning, as people get ready for work, wanes mid-day, and picks up again after work, while the online audience tends to skyrocket around the lunch hour and dwindle at night.  There’s a connection, a synergy, that can work to the advantage of both.

During a launch day live chat, TBD’s GM highlighted what he learned about merging TV and the web: “TV moves at Web speed, and vice versa. No one ever has to tell the TV folks to pick up the pace.”  And that basis can make for a long-lasting, mutually beneficial relationship, if properly handled.  But like anything else, if the concrete settles incorrectly, the result can be devastating.

Rightly so, Chaggaris says, they’ll use the TV side to direct people to on-line content through the morning, and hope the website does the same for the early evening crowd to some extent.  But I generally haven’t seen it work in that direction — except the much-anticipated “S#@% My Dad Says” show on CBS this Fall — and perhaps it need not.  If TBD TV can provide a watchable product that offers the sensibilities of a hip website along with a more reasoned approach to local news, viewers should flock to it as an escape from what fills the air elsewhere.

And as Chaggaris and company move to set themselves apart from other offerings, I hope they:

  • Avoid zoned coverage. In a metro market like D.C. — where you may live in Maryland, work in Virginia and dine in the District — I think zeroing in on a smaller group of viewers can be a detriment.  Instead, just deliver the area’s news.  Otherwise, you degrade your audience unnecessarily, when they may in fact want a perspective that includes the biggest news from across the region.  Just because you can offer a different newscast for one particular area doesn’t mean you should.  Put the additional time and resources into other parts of your product.
  • Ban packages from elsewhere. In “just deliver the area’s news” above, I really mean to emphasize the area.  So much of what appears on local newscasts across the country is no longer local.  In D.C., politics anywhere counts as local, but missing hikers in Montana do not — unless, of course, they’re from the region.  If you can’t fill up a local newscast with local news, then you have a bit of a problem on your hands.
  • Eliminate useless soundbytes. We don’t need to hear a neighbor saying, “I’m shocked this happened here,” or a shopper saying, “Yeah, it’s out here!”  We figured as much.  Soundbytes should add something that a newscaster can’t.  I’ve seen fewer on TBD TV than elsewhere, which is great.  I hope other newscasts take note.  And on the flipside, use soundbytes that add meaning.
  • Help viewers learn something. TBD TV is already including reports from sister operation Politico and sharing news from other blogs in the region.  Keep up the notion that TV news doesn’t have to be crime scene tape and street corner signs. Give me some interesting tidbit that will make me a tad smarter as I start my day.

Reshaping TBD TV is, in some ways, a greater challenge than building a new website.  And in many ways, it can reap even greater rewards.  I’ll stay tuned…

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5 thoughts on “TBD: Not Just a Website

  1. Thanks for bringing TBD TV into the spotlight, Andrew. We have a bunch of ideas on both sides of the TV/web fence that we hope will make this a pretty exciting adventure for us and our viewers.

  2. Andy, this was great! Having worked with the Politico and NC8 folks, I know there are questions about how well this will succeed.. but no one knows until they try, right?

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