AUGUST 9, 2021

Lovin’ La Vida Local

Speaker_CE_1862x1040 S1E16-min

The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of that local connection to the communities that TV stations serve. Now the question is, what will that look like going forward and how will delivery through digital platforms enhance this experience?

In this episode, we ask: How can broadcasters use digital platforms to deepen the relationship between viewers and their local stations? What are TV stations doing to enable truly embedded reporters in their communities? And will this open up new audience and commercial opportunities?

Listen to Hear:

  • How to engage staff to face the digital future
  • How to create an “always-on” culture within a news organization
  • The part the cloud will play in the future delivery of news

Our Guest This Episode

Adam Wiener
Executive Vice President and General Manager
CBS Local Digital Media

Adam Wiener has spent more than 30 years at the forefront of media evolution. He leads all aspects of digital for the owned and operated CBS Television Stations. Most recently, Adam conceived and led the roll-out of CBSN Local: 24/7 news streams powered by the CBS Television Stations’ newsrooms, available for free on connected television, desktop, and mobile devices via the CBS News app, local station websites, Pluto TV, and the all-new Paramount Plus streaming service.

He has held senior digital business and operational management roles at web startups and traditional media companies, such as NBCUniversal, IAC, and Dow Jones. He returned to CBS in 2010 to launch CBS Local Digital Media, of which he was appointed Executive Vice President and General Manager in 2016. Adam sits on the Digital Officers Committee of the National Association of Broadcasters and is an Affiliate Board Member of Digital Content Next. Adam received a BA in Journalism from the University of Rhode Island, where he serves on the Executive Advisory Board of the Harrington School of Communications and Media. He was inducted into the URI Hall of Fame in 2016.

News has a real retention element to it. You realize it is something you need to be connected to every day. It just makes you feel connected to your community

Adam Wiener, Executive Vice President and General Manager, CBS Local Digital Media

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Episode Transcript


Craig Wilson: Hi! Craig Wilson here, and thanks for joining me on the latest episode of the Making the Media podcast. This time, we turn our attention to digital and specifically to local news in the United States, but with themes which are universal for the challenges facing newsrooms throughout the globe.

I'm joined on the podcast by Adam Weiner, Executive Vice President and General Manager of CBS Local Digital Media. Adam has had a long career with CBS, including working on a show called Up to the Minute, which was the first news broadcast of any network to have a dedicated website. Imagine setting up a show now and thinking you wouldn't have one?

In the podcast, we talk about engaging staff to develop new skills for the digital world, the need to foster an always-on culture to update content constantly across all platforms, and how they can tackle the challenge from Netflix and others through the medium of local news. Let's hear from Adam now as he explains his wide-ranging portfolio.

Adam Weiner: My role is the Executive Vice President and General manager of CBS Local Digital Media, which is essentially the group that is responsible for all of the digital aspects—which I will explain in a moment—for the owned and operated stations of Viacom CBS. So, Viacom CBS owns about 28 television stations across the United States, they are a mix of what I like to call traditionally CBS branded news stations with network programming. Those are things like WCBS in New York City, WBBM in Chicago, KCBS in Los Angeles, WBCN in Boston, etc. Then there's some independents like Cowan, Los Angeles or WLNY in New York. And then there's a couple of CW stations that we have in some markets.

So, it's a mix of those things, those entities, and then essentially anything that those stations want to do that is something related to digital, which is a broad-based term that falls under my purview, and my team's purview. And that can be anything from technology underpinnings of what we do for our websites to our OTT infrastructure, and streams, to sales, to marketing, to ad operations, general operations, strategy, business development… all of those things fall under our group of local digital media and that's really it.

You know, our primary focus for the past few years has been the launch of CBSN Local, which is a 24/7 local news streaming over the top product that will be coming out ultimately out of our 13 markets where we operate newsrooms. So those traditional CBS branded stations where we operate newsrooms, we're going to be having a 24/7. We have already 11 and we have two more to go 24/7 streams they are distributed. You're connected television devices, mobile apps, websites, etc. And that's really been the focus for us. It's been a tremendous collaborative effort across divisions, not just the TV stations but the CBS News division, IT, all of the technology groups within the company, the streaming group within the company. So that's been a very fulfilling project because so many people are involved, and it shows the sort of power that the combined entity can bring to the table.

CW: Yeah, so I mean it's lots of different aspects to what you talked about there and Adam, one question to ask about—why does Viacom CBS see digital as such a crucial part of what their future of the businesses is?

AW: Well, I think that's probably a pretty, you know, it's a pretty well known, I think, understanding across the media industry as to where the future is headed and it really speaks to media consumption, specifically.

You know where people are, where and how people consume the aging of people and what they're used to consuming or how they're being trained to consume media is changing the environment for the company as a whole. CBS’s long term plan, a long history had been broadcast, and so now with direct to consumer and the advent of things like, you know, Netflix and Amazon Prime and lots of streaming, the understanding is the direct consumer opportunity is just too great to ignore for anyone, and so, offering a smart mix of how you reach consumers, how do you reach them on any platform in the traditional ways that some people might be used to, the newer ways people are looking to consume media, we have to be everywhere.

So, so much of that is digital, to go back to the question. But the direct-to-consumer piece is really rooted in the streaming world, and you know, that is at its root a digital strategy.

CW: And what do you think it is in those markets that the news can bring as a differentiator for what you can provide as opposed to those other platforms?

AW: That's an excellent question, and one I really haven't been asked before, Craig. So, I commend you on that question. But you know, news has a real retention element for people. It's a product that you know, once you are sort of attuned to specifically local news, which is what I'm most focused on, that once you are attuned to that, you realize the value of it, and you realize that it's something that you have to be connected to every day. And so, it just makes you feel connected to your community.

That's a really critical piece, right? The fact that you feel this connection to where you are, that you feel that you're part of a community, and local news provides the basis for that, right? It's understanding what's happening in the immediate surroundings to you; understanding how it can affect you. And so, that element is a tremendous retention area for streaming products.

We believe that Viacom CBS integrating CBS and national NCBSM both inches all of the various platforms that we are offering. Whether it's direct, consumer, specific, branded service stations, or the broader elements of Viacom CBS like Paramount Plus subscription service or Pluto TV, which is a fast, you know, AVOD offering, you know, linear-like streaming EPG. That is, you know, the bulk of Paramount Plus’s (inaudible) is consumption of entertainment, type of content etc.

But once people realize that they can get their local or national news there as well, maybe they have to come back more often than just to get entertainment program. So, it really mixes together really well.

CW: The other question to ask around that, you spoke there about giving people a sense of community, and that's something that we have discussed on the podcast before about local news giving that sense of community. Do you think it's also the case that it's important for your editorial teams to be embedded in those societies and embedded in those communities to add that additional sense of feeling that people belong? And that's what you're offering?

AW: Yeah, it's table stakes to be a local news provider, to be embedded within the community. And the interesting thing I believe that the CSN local products is providing is the ability for us to get even further embedded because what it's doing is it's providing, you know, having 24/7 opportunity to program local news versus just the standard linear, you know, news at 5 News at 11 type of thing, provides the opportunity to create more content. The ability to create more content means we have to get out and shoot more stories. We have to unearth more, you know, lifestyle-type content around cultural events in the cities that we operate—in addition to covering the news in the weather and local sports, next thing.

So, I think that community is really the root of what we do, right, you know. And when you think about the original licenses that were provided to your broadcast, it was because the service they provided for the public, as far as public information and making certain that you know safety of those sort of things, that speaks directly to that community aspect.

I mentioned this recently to a couple other people, but you know, there's oftentimes every year—and I'm sure you've seen it—there's always distractions. Pew and other recent studies about trust of news organizations or news categories, the public's trust of them, and local news is always the most trusted elements of any type of offering and I've rolled my eyes every single time I see those, because I think to myself: It's so obvious to me why that would be, right?

Well, first of all, local news is not offering an opinion of much, right? So, it's not a divisive thing. I like to joke that we give opinion every day, and even when we were sort of wrong, you're still going to come back next day to hear the weather report. Right? So, to me, that's sort of opinion. I mean, I know that meteorologists would take issue with that, and just aren't spaced out how you know, discipline, etc. But you know, they are giving their opinion as to what they think might happen.

So, regardless, you know, we're giving utilitarian type of information and we're doing it in a friendly manner. So, oftentimes, you develop bones with the sources that you consume and if the sources that you're consuming are not being divisive, you start to think about those people. It's basically friends, you know. It's the old adage about like you know, people who work in local news always need people on the street and the people treat them like their old friends. It's because they're with them every day, they've developed this daily routine relationship with them, so that community aspect is really at the root of everything we do. And I think that the streaming worlds provides us even broader and deeper hooks to really foster that community and supercharge that community feel with our audience.

CW: Is it also though from a commercial perspective that you look at almost like a virtuous circle? Your broadcast operation is supporting your streaming operation, which is supporting your broadcast operation, and so cross promotion and things like that… and so, from a commercial perspective there's further opportunities for an organization.

AW: Yes, without a doubt and there's been a recent structural change within Viacom CBS where what was the CBS television stations division and the CBS News divisions, which acted separately and were distinct divisions of the company, are now being brought together, and there's now one division called CBS News and Stations. Part of that is shepherding or heralding a new operating sense or just a where's for what we do and how we do it, with an understanding that there's really no… The lines are blurred between what we had done before for traditional broadcast or network news shows and the digital offerings that we have so much now that… I think that every media company is in the same process of this transitionary period of understanding that we are always on, regardless of the deadlines that we have connected to specific broadcasts or shows.

There are people looking for information from us on all platforms at all times, and so, there needs to be a sort of shift in our thinking at every local newsroom I know we're in the process of doing this to understanding you're not working towards the 5:00 o'clock show—you're actually working towards a day part. You're not responsible for just the (inaudible). You're responsible for this block of time, and it's whether it's the broadcast or whether it's the social channels or whether it's CBSN’s local stream or whether it's anything else that you know how we reach consumers. You own that. And so that thinking is making the deadlines for reporters, for line producers, everything changed. The deadline essentially is right now. It's always going to be right now.

CW: One aspect that you brought up there is about different divisions coming together, and I think that in itself is reflected in individual newsrooms, where perhaps the digital team and the broadcast team were perhaps separate, and I'm interested to know if that's something you're trying to bring them more closely together or have you already done that to try and ensure that continuous production of content?

AW: Well, it's different in different markets where we are with that. Some of them are much more advanced and sort of breaking down the silos internally and some are not, and everything is a process of change overtime and getting people used to sort of new ways of doing things.

There's also labor concerns in certain markets which come into play as you know, what obligations that we have there. But certainly, breaking down those silos is without a doubt, the most important thing that we are probably working on right now in our division because making people understand that, as I've mentioned before, that they are responsible for everything at all times, and you know, one of the interesting things about that is many people are realizing that, you know, whereas traditionally, a lot of people have always worked this sort of siloed world where they're like this is my responsibility, that's your responsibility, and you know, I'm not going to touch your stuff and don't touch myself.

But I think what's coming into play here is that people are understanding that the more that they understand, and the more that they can be cross trained, it will only help them in their career. It will only help them in advancement. It will only help them in just staying current with the national innovation and evolution of the technical things that we do or the distribution elements that we that we have.

As people become more accepting of plug and play for pretty much anything that’s needed of me, the more valuable you are.

CW: I mean, I completely agree. I mean, I think, as you go through your career, you develop different skills along the way, and personally I feel I'm more open now to doing new things than I probably was at any time of my career, just the way things have developed.

But I guess for some people, they possibly see it as a threat. And I guess one of the challenges that you have is trying to say to them that it's actually not necessarily a threat. It's an opportunity to grow their own experience and as a consequence, become more valuable to CBS as an employee and also more valuable to their audience.

AW: Well, I'll tell you this, that first of all, the attitude of, it's expected that everybody be adept and evolve and innovate is a top-down approach. Right? And still, that's the first step is that people in places of leadership, whether they are at the corporate structure or whether they're in the local markets, they need to be the ones leading the charge.

And so, to your point about people who are maybe reluctant or hesitant, I can tell you that we had a very successful thing we've now replicated in one market we chose what we call “Pioneers” to get involved with this. And this and the people who were chosen were chosen because they may have been considered to be them reluctant to that sort of change, right?

So, when they were presented with this, they the reaction was “Well, you know, I'm not really so keen on that.” But then, over time, they were being singled out for how well they were doing with this sort of interesting stuff that they would… and they became sort of the biggest champions of that. So, you know, we had a mix of people who were obviously very eager to get involved cross training and getting involved in additional aspects etc. But you know, some of the people who are not, wound up becoming some of our best sellers of the idea, and I think that strategy paid off.

CW: So, obviously, there's the people part of it, but I guess as well, there's also the technology part of it. Do you find that you have the technology to enable you to deliver the way that you want to do it, or are you still figuring out how that's going to going to play out?

AW: We're always testing new things. I mean, that's sort of been a hallmark of the company for many years that we are, you know, we're always in market testing, new technologies. I can tell you that Viacom CBS did a strategic agreement with Amazon Web Services late last year, that was led by Phil Weiser, the Chief Technology Officer at the company, so, our efforts to move more towards cloud-based initiatives is a critical piece of where we're headed.

You know, Austin taught previously we had a lot of on-premises hardware solutions, etc, which in some cases is still required or still needed for certain things when it comes to back up and those sorts of things that we still are going to rely on. We are actively moving towards testing out new ways to do things, specifically cloud based, and you know, we just launched our eleventh CBSN on local stream. Which is in Sacramento, and we launched that utilizing some new technologies that the previous tenant doesn't have that were more cloud based and we're building on that.

So, the intention is that we are going to do more of that. We're going to fine tune that, we're going to work with partners like Amazon Web Services, like many of our other partners like Avid and others to make certain that we are evolving our technology product usage towards web-based systems, cloud-based systems where the pandemic was really a moment where… I mean, every media company will tell you, this really moved people towards cloud-based or web-based—specifically web-based—to get the job done. And, you know, VPN’ing of course is important but like then it's just web-based systems or the evolution of web-based, we leaned on tremendously to get the job done.

So, you know, I think that, you know, for the digital folks, most of our systems were already good base. So, we made that switch pretty quickly on the first day of the shutdown, whereas some of our newsrooms, you know, it was a scrambling effort to try to figure out how we're going to service and what we can move and how we access and that sort of thing. But I think everybody is much nimbler now than they were before.

CW: So, what's the future there? What's the next six months or next year, Adam, looking like for you? Where do you see the further development of the properties that we've discussed?

AW: Yeah, I mean we're going to launch, you know, our plan will be to launch their (inaudible) to markets. There's been nothing announced on that. But we are working in the background to position those markets for the CBSN local streams, those to last markets are Baltimore in Miami.

And then beyond that is, as I mentioned a moment ago, that fine-tuning of the technology towards more cloud-based systems and implementing those systems more broadly. Maybe even looking at previous installations and thinking about how we can migrate certain elements of it to new systems becomes a really critical piece.

And then frankly, that mindset change that we discussed about newsroom positioning becomes really critical. You know, we have to think about communities that we serve, how we create content to, you know, to inform these disparate groups of people who may come to us different ages, different interests across different markets and make certain that we're giving them what they need. Which speaks to that mindset change about, you know, understanding that the deadline is always now, understanding that we need to create more content—creating more content is really the key. How do we create more content? Because to me, that's it. It creates more opportunities to continue viewing for the audience, right? So, you want to keep as much diverse content as you can in the 24/7 streams that we're building to keep people watching as long as they can, and it has to be quality content. It has to be a really good program on local news. So, we have to really focus on how we do that.

You know, budgets are not expanding, so we need to do that in a smart way without compromising our linear products which are still, you know, tremendous reach products and still driving a huge amount of revenue for us. Everything has to be done balanced.

The last thing I mentioned there in the future is what I said before about the news division the stations division coming together internally. You know, we're going to see different ways that those two divisions can work more closely. We're going to discover more ways that we can lean into each other better. So, uh, you know obvious things would be, you know, the building collapse in Miami this past week, our station in Miami WFLR is being utilized more by the network for the Network News Group for content creation etc. Or for anything else.

And then, on the flip side, being able to take network content that can speak to local audiences and being better about distributing that content across local channels. I think that becomes a key piece.

CW: Yeah, so, I guess it's about you have the content, it's about making sure it's utilized in all the different ways that you can best do it.

And I think you made a great point there, Adam, about your broadcast properties. I know we talked a lot within the media industry about digital and digital as being the future, but there's still no doubt that the broadcast properties that people have are still fundamental drivers of income and audience. And we shouldn't forget that.

AW: Yes. Without a doubt. And you know, pay TV is a lot of talk and trade stuff about the decline of paid TV. It's still a tremendous business, and it's still a tremendous audience reach product. There is still a lot of people—even with the discussions around cord cutters and cord nevers, there's still a lot of people who will still pay for television through—even if it's not through your traditional cable systems that could be through virtual (inaudible) or the YouTube TVs of the world, etc. And some of that has to do with the programming that you can get through pay TV, right?

I mean it, you know, a great example of that is a big deal that Viacom CBS News did this past year with the NFL. NFL rights for Viacom CBS in, you know, into many years in the future, that speaks to… you know, the NFL is a pretty sizable, interested audience in the United States for adult content, and the live games, so, you know, paid TV is the place you're going to get that that's going to continue to be a tremendous driver for us.

And then, layering in the utilitarian nature of news and all of the other programming that you'll be able to get through those systems. And, of course, as I said, it's still a tremendous revenue drop. It is a critical piece of the operating of Viacom CBS, the overall budgets, and it helps also to fund and fuel the expansion, innovation, and evolution that we're doing in other areas.

CW: So, Adam, really, really, really, interesting, and there is one question I ask everyone in the podcast, so I will ask you: What is it, if anything, when you look at the landscape that lies in front of you, what is it, if anything, that keeps you awake at night?

AW: You know there's a lot that keeps me awake at night, considering the broad scope of local digital media and what were responsible for. But you know, I think the thing that keeps me awake at night is understanding that everchanging consumption pattern and the evolution of that consumption pattern, you know, that younger generations and how that group is consuming content, how they're going to consume content in the future. Sort of, the unknowns about how the consumption patterns are going to change, and making certain that we, as content providers, are positioned so that we are going to be in the place when that person turns and says, “I suddenly want or need this type of content.”

Am I going to be there? Is our content going to be there as a natural choice for that person? Understanding the broad changes that are happening, you know, social media is a perfect example. So many people are consuming so much like on Tik Tok, right? We're putting content there as well, right? And we're doing it with a different type of content that we do normally because we are adapting to that type of style and what's expected on that platform.

Next year there's going to be a different thing. And the year after, there will be a different thing. And creating this sort of prophecies to serve us all of these type of places—that's the thing that keeps me up. Are we going to be able to do everything we're going to need to do to put our content in front of people at the point they suddenly realized they needed it?

CW: I think that's definitely a challenge which is not unique to newsrooms under Adam’s control, but to all within the broadcast news industry. Thanks to Adam for joining us once again! Lots more food for thought and let us know what you think.

Remember you can contact me on social. I'm @CraigAW1969 on both Twitter and Instagram. Or you can email us. Our address is [email protected].

If you're interested in what Adam and I discussed and want to find out more, then check out the show notes. There, you can get the perspective of one of Scandinavia's biggest broadcasters on the challenge of digital and his radical thoughts for how to deal with it, and also advice on innovative storytelling to attract new audiences on different platforms. We're building up quite an archive now of episodes and lots of good stuff in them.

Next time on the podcast I'm going to be joined by Aaron Gordon, Senior Director on ITV daytime in the UK, and we'll find out from him about how the move to remote production has impacted the way that stories are told in the studio and whether that is going to stick.


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