BROADCASTERS GAZE PAST AIRWAVES

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LAS VEGAS-The National Association of Broadcasters held its annual conference here last week, but the group might as well have been called the National Association of Multimedia.

Focused on digital compression, interactivity and multichannel viewing options, the broadcasters sounded more like their cable and telephone industry superhighway counterparts than traditional radio and TV station managers.

Although technologies are still being perfected and regulators have yet to clear the path for digital broadcasting, most of the stations represented were thinking beyond the capacity of traditional broadcast frequencies.

If there was any doubt broadcasters are poised to make the leap, keynote speaker Ray Smith, chairman-ceo of Bell Atlantic Corp., put it to rest as he invited broadcasters to become content providers on the information superhighway.

"Even if we were to develop our own programming capability, we still won't be able to duplicate [broadcasting's] infrastructure of news, weather, sports and public affairs programming," he said.

Mr. Smith said Bell Atlantic is talking to stations in the Washington area, along with public broadcasters and station groups, "to explore ways to [find new uses for] local news, specials, sports programs and syndicated shows" as part of Bell Atlantic's Stargazer video-on-demand service, now in test.

Bell Atlantic is also in discussions with "partners in all areas of our new industry to expand our footprint and increase our purchasing base," he said.

To whet broadcast interest in Bell Atlantic, Mr. Smith said, the company is "exploring a number of creative ways to strengthen the brand identity of programmers" participating in the upcoming video-on-demand trial.

TV station managers were also encouraged to adapt enhanced telecommunications technologies during the concurrent Television Bureau of Advertising's annual marketing conference, themed "The shape of things to come."

TVB commissioned a management study by McKinsey & Co. and Teller/Gorman Group, New York, to offer insights for that transition.

McKinsey principal John Rose encouraged TV stations to work with local cable TV operators and use cable's "zoning" capability to divide the stations' commercials into highly targeted geographic niches.

In doing so, Mr. Rose noted, broadcasters could command the same costs per thousand as cable, which he said average $20 to $30 but can run as high as $100.

Michael Gorman, a principal of Teller/Gorman, said TV stations should also start taking advantage of database marketing to identify prospects, track customers and provide direct offers to viewers.

Lastly, the consultants advised broadcasters to begin adopting current interactive technologies to be prepared when newer versions become available.

During one of the TVB panel discussions, Roland Wolfram, executive director of Pacific Bell Information Services, also invited broadcasters to become programming partners.

He said Pacific Bell's focus is primarily as a distributor of enhanced TV services to viewers, such as video-on-demand and new forms of home shopping that enable viewers to "browse" for products and services.

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