While it may not be the sexiest corner of the entertainment world, local TV has a good shot to remain a key part of the media mix, especially as stations consolidate, produce their own shows instead of shelling out for pricey syndicated fare and keep gaining traction on skinny bundles.
Such was the argument, anyway, made during an hour-long panel discussion at NAB Show New York featuring four CEOs of major station groups: Dave Lougee of Tegna; Chris Ripley of Sinclair; Valari Dobson Staab of NBC and Jordan Wertlieb of Hearst.
Lougee said cord-cutting and the rise of virtual MVPDs (aka skinny bundles) favor local stations. “The reason there’s not been skinny bundles until now has not been technology. It’s because they haven’t had us,” he said. “Declines in cable subscriptions are happening and accelerating, and over the air (is growing). We’re going to be the belle of the ball in terms of distribution.”
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Internet-delivered bundles from Hulu, DirecTV, YouTube and others have added local stations at a steady clip. YouTube now has stations covering 90% of the country. Ripley said Sinclair believes in becoming platform-agnostic, given that he expects the number of skinny subscribers to exceed traditional cable ones by 2021.
Political advertising was another theme. Ripley said that while the category figures to stay robust, “We don’t expect the Trump Effect to re-occur” in 2018 or even if Trump runs again in 2020. Trump’s spree of free media left local stations holding the bag as he surged to the Republican nomination. “Even if he runs again, I think you’ll see a much more conventional campaign and more fundraising.”
Ripley did not address Sinclair’s pending takeover of Tribune Media, apart from a brief moment as the CEOs took their seats onstage. Moderator Harry Jessel of TV Newscheck said the panelists represented 350 stations among them, “assuming Sinclair gets Tribune.” Ripley replied, “That would be an accurate assumption.”
Staab was asked about NBC’s plans for the NFL given ratings decline, and she focused her comments on the ubiquity of games, which now air on CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN, NFL Network and Amazon Prime. “The NFL has put its games in a lot of places and that’s what’s hurting its ratings more than anything else,” she said. “Part of what’s made the NFL value is exclusivity.”
When Thursday night games come up for bidding again for next season, she added, NBC would join other networks in reviewing the opportunity. In the current scenario, “It’s tough to have it in three places and sold three ways. … Too many people in the marketplace selling the same thing.”
Speaking of selling, Ripley also confirmed reports last summer that Sinclair would ditch Nielsen in favor of its smaller rival comScore for its ratings. Asked to elaborate, he said both measurement firms have flaws. “It’s sort of, pick your poison,” he said. Eventually, “they’re both going to be replaced by specific device measurement.”
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