NewsON CEO Louis Gump believes the key to his company's success lies in building a great user experience within his local news streaming app, a strategy that appears to be paying off. Viewership of the NewsON app, which streams local news from hundreds of stations across the U.S., has seen double-digit monthly growth on Roku streaming devices alone in the first quarter of 2016.
"We've been mostly focused on three things: improving the product, building the audience, and then building out the ad capability," Gump said in an interview with FierceOnlineVideo. Without an app that works well, the best ad platform in the world isn't going to monetize an online video stream, because the audience won't be there, he noted. So, "The first decision we made this time last year was we were going to get the consumer product right before we spent a lot of time on ads."
Since its launch in November, NewsON has grown its participating TV stations to 138, with 150 active stations expected to be online by this summer. It's available in 97 markets, including 46 of the top 50 markets (with two more top-50s committed to join, Gump said).
The service was backed from the start by five major station groups including ABC Owned Television Stations, Cox Media Group, Hearst Television, Media General, and Raycom Media, and a number of additional groups have come aboard including Sinclair Broadcast Group and Hubbard Broadcasting.
NewsON, which can best be described as the streaming app a local news aficionado dreams of, live-streams local newscasts from all around the U.S. to iOS and Android smartphones and tablets, and to Roku streaming devices. By putting in their ZIP code, users can quickly pull up a list of participating stations in their area. There's also a map feature in the mobile version of the app, from which users can select newscasts from stations almost anywhere in the country -- something Gump says is arguably the "single biggest asset of the app … you can get 138 stations' worth of content with the press of a button," Gump said. "And there's no place in the world, as far as I know, certainly not in the United States, where you can do that."
Users also can watch on-demand news content and other content that is curated by topic, and the app includes an alert feature that notifies users of breaking news on either a national or a regional/local level.
For example, when Prince died, NewsON sent an alert to mobile app users that directed them to Minneapolis station KSTP, which Gump said "had awesome coverage about that event." Directing users to the local station allowed them to get an in-depth local perspective on the star's passing. "Otherwise that story would have stayed in the local market, but now we're giving it a national stage," he said.
On a local/regional level, the recent Tropical Storm Bonnie prompted alerts on a couple of levels as it approached the South Carolina coast. "We could send an alert either to just people who've favorited that station in our app, or we could send it on a regional basis for people who might be interested over the Memorial Day weekend," Gump said. "So even people who maybe aren't accustomed to watching WCSC, they zoomed right into that coverage. And once again we just got a bigger audience for great coverage that otherwise wouldn't have been there."
NewsON is completely ad-supported, but its ad platform only recently launched and is still being rolled out. "The first quarter of this year we built out a significant amount of capabilities for the stations, and we put ourselves after that," Gump said. The platform gives stations some flexibility in how ads are presented in their live and on-demand streams. TV stations can utilize the platform's dynamic ad insertion (DAI) feature, which lets them serve targeted addressable ads to users, likely based on their profile; or they can choose to deliver the linear live stream that includes the newscast's broadcast ads.
Gump said that building out dynamic ad insertion capabilities for the varied technical environments of different stations was a challenge. "As you can imagine, if you're working with 11 TV station groups, they have multiple environments, and what we're trying to do is build something that works for all of them."
However, the kinks are being worked out and the ad platform has rolled out to almost all of the app's participating stations. "There's still a few places around the edges where we have some launches to go – but for the most part it's available for anybody that wants it," he said.
NewsON also plans to run its own pre-roll ads ahead of the app's curated content and on-demand coverage, something it's on the cusp of launching, Gump said. He's also looking to reshape the pre-roll format somewhat, too. "I have wanted since my CNN days to create a shorter pre-roll. Especially for mobile -- we're looking for an advertiser who would like to innovate on a five- to seven-second pre-roll."
The ability to telescope in on local news coverage anywhere in the country has had some interesting consequences for the TV news industry already. "The (on-air) talent, they're now able to say to their friends and followers, 'hey, watch me on NewsON.' So they're interested," Gump said. "That was kind of anticipated but here's what wasn't anticipated: Station managers and station group executives are watching news across the country in a way they never did or could before, using tools that never existed before." It's a fair bet that stations are comparing each other's news delivery, in ways that could prompt changes to the way local news stations operate.
With the app's core functionality operating, users coming on board -- NewsON is working to attract more viewers by running various promotions, such as a recent iPad giveaway on Miami's WPLG that boosted NewsON viewership for the station by 33 percent -- and its ad platform clicking into place, Gump feels the app will be a valued additional revenue source for local TV stations.
"Our business model is heavily weighted toward the TV station. The model the stations are used to in particular in monetizing through the stream with their ad (models) is intact. To the extent that they're really good at monetizing in their core business, NewsON is just a really good extension of that. … Either way they win."
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