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Changing Channels

Local TV stations are investing heavily in high-definition technology and reaching out to viewers via the Web. Can the new strategy save their shrinking ratings—or are they just jumping the shark?

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As a member of the Fenwick High School swim team, Larry Wert excelled at diving. Today the trim 51-year-old general manager of WMAQ-Channel 5 still makes the occasional leap, although it’s tougher than it used to be. During an interview, Wert rolls up a pants leg to reveal a scary-looking—but not very serious—gash along his shin. “I was showing off to my kids,” Wert says of his recent attempt to land a flawless one-meter inward pike. “My head said I could but my body said I couldn’t.”

These days, Wert and his fellow local TV station managers are taking another type of plunge—a risky free fall into the high-tech digital age. As traditional local TV viewing declines and the remaining audience taps into whiz-bang devices ranging from giant viewing screens to tiny iPods to watch area news, sports, weather, and other programs, Chicago’s TV outlets are scrambling to stay connected with viewers. The stations are investing heavily in an array of new products and services, including high-definition broadcasting equipment, more on-demand programming, and a slew of Internet-based news, information, and social networking sites. And that’s just the beginning. “These are seismic changes,” says Wert. “You can’t stay ahead of them…. You hope to keep pace.”

Nobody knows if the new strategy will save the day or even make money for the stations, but standing still is not an option. If the city’s local TV outlets—mainly those owned and operated by the Big Four networks as well as Tribune Company’s WGN-TV—don’t successfully adapt, they risk suffering the same fate as newspaper companies, which were slow to change and are now reeling from loss of audience, serious earnings declines, massive cost cutting, and industry-wide contraction.

“The number one topic of conversation at the stations is, Will we be around in ten years?” says Bill Kurtis, former WBBM-Channel 2 anchorman and now a media industry entrepreneur.

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Illustration: Robert Carter/CrackedHat.com


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