Behind the Scenes Features Reinventing Local TV News

Why TV executives should listen to their interns

Internships are more than just a learning experience and an occasional coffee run. NBC Chicago interns are part of the team making some pretty important decisions on behalf of the company. If someone had told me I was going to make a mark on NBC on the first day of my summer internship, I would’ve gasped. But that’s exactly what happened. 

“As digital content creation and monetization continue to change, how might we evolve our approach across NBC Chicago, Telemundo Chicago and NBC Sports Chicago platforms to grow audience, attract clients and escalate revenue?” 

That question was illuminated on a large projector screen in a quaint conference room during my first week of the NBC Chicago internship program this past summer. The other 10 interns beside me were also staring at the screen, grappling with the broad, challenging question for the first time. Over the next ten weeks, this question would become such a big part of our lives that we could recite it word-for-word. Our work was going to be a starting point for NBC’s future. 

Once we were split into two teams, we were off to find an answer. My team spitballed many topics during our first brainstorming session. We talked about everything from the rise of artificial intelligence in media to utilizing social media as a mode for storytelling. But with the help of Lisa Balde, vice president of digital media, and Sean Michael, director of digital sales, we soon learned of the growing prominence of NBC Chicago’s Free Ad Supported Television streaming channel, also known as the FAST channel.

The NBC Chicago streaming channel provides 24/7 free streaming news across nine different platforms, including Peacock, Roku and Samsung, as well as on the NBC Chicago website and app. 

“I think we really looked at the needs of this company and with the guidance of Lisa, we knew that this FAST streaming channel was really where they wanted to grow, and where they were getting subscribers and where traction was being picked up,” Stephen Knobel, a sophomore intern from the University of Southern California, remarked.

“The audience has really gravitated toward it. It’s more proof that people are looking for news in their area that matters to them,” said Balde, who is a part of the team who manages the streaming platform. “The biggest piece to think about is putting it in a place where they are, and we believe that’s in streaming, in this OTT space.”

We found the streaming channel to be a convenient way to get news, as it could be easily accessed on mobile devices at any time. But there was still a pitfall: The bothersome blue screen that would pop up during every commercial break. This is because not all streaming platforms have the same advertising agreements. The stream on Roku, for example, is populated with commercials during the breaks, but the stream on NBC Chicago’s website is doomed with the blue screen throughout the entirety of the commercial break. The screen, we hypothesized, was a factor in driving viewers away, as the most engaging part of it was the countdown clock indicating when the live stream would come back from break.

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Throughout the next ten weeks, we put together and presented a solution to fix this blue screen blues: A quick, digestible rundown of the day’s news that featured aspects across NBC Chicago’s triopoly, including content from NBC Chicago, Telemundo Chicago and NBC Sports Chicago. We created a prototype that we then presented in front of several managers at NBC, including the General Manager of NBC Chicago, Kevin Cross.

“I truly believe that the interns are the smartest people in the room, especially when it comes to media because they are consuming the content. They have their fingers on the pulse of what’s new and up and coming in content, and we have a lot to learn from them,” Balde said about having the interns present their ideas to the team leaders at NBC. 

Intern Fiona Hurless, a senior at Syracuse University, reflected on the adaptability of our pitch so that our rundown could be shared not only on the streaming channel, but also on NBC Chicago’s social media platforms and as a promotion during a linear newscast.

“Not only was the streaming channel a way to reach them [the audience], it was a way to pull them back into a more linear news format,” said Hurless, “We talked about engagement a lot by incorporating social media segments, putting interactive polls in [the streaming content] and having ways to connect the streaming channel back to social media and have that same social media engagement present in this more linear format.”

But in the end, media corporations are not just newsrooms: they’re businesses. Besides being tasked to curate content that would engage the NBC Chicago triopoly as a whole, we also were asked to find ways to drive revenue.

“What I learned is you can monetize stuff in a unique way. One of my favorite things is an ad in-sale integration … It integrates storytelling with ad revenue, which is a very powerful device for both the public good, but also for the corporation,” said Knobel, who initially suggested putting such an integration, which is a piece of content created in-house to promote an event or product paid for by an outside company, into the rundown we were pitching. 

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“We were trying to focus on revenue by doing it locally first,” said Abdoullaye Doucoure, an intern from Western Illinois University. 

“We’re in a very unique position with the streaming channel because it wasn’t a national streaming channel; it was very local-specific to Chicago,” added Hurless. “I think having that local sponsorship and appearances not only helps your community and strengthens that, but it also helps pull in the local audience. It’s something they’ll be interested in because these are things that they care about and see every day.”

In the end, my team won the presentation competition, and it was a very exciting opportunity for us to showcase our skills as budding journalists, content creators and businesspeople who really care about the evolution of news, especially in the digital age.

Our idea did not fall into oblivion. Instead, after our last day at NBC Tower, the digital team took it and formatted it into a concept they’ve termed “Fast Break” — a quick break in the news on the streaming channel that gives a rundown of the top stories of the day. 

“This mentality that an intern is just somebody there to observe, or like, get coffee is of the way past,” said Balde. “We have to be working together hand in hand with our interns and exploring solutions with them.” 

“I’m just glad we were able to find something that’s going to benefit the news going forward and make more younger people engage[d]” said Doucoure.

So, ask me about my internship now. I won’t be able to stop talking about the influential, immersive experience that made a huge impact not only on myself and the other interns but also on NBC Chicago. And if you don’t believe me, check out the NBC streaming channel.

Gigi Barnett

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