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How UNC-TV transformed itself from a public TV network into a digital media company

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: As a statewide public media TV network, University of North Carolina TV, or UNC-TV, is building a new and larger audience by producing digital content while staying committed to its traditional broadcast audience.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Galen Black, director of local content at UNC-TV. UNC-TV was a member of the first cohort and the second cohort of the Table Stakes program run by the University of North Carolina and is continuing in the program this year.

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Answer: UNC-TV first went on the air in 1955 and has grown into a 12-station network that reaches the entire state and portions of the surrounding border states. We broadcast four digital services: UNC-TV (HD), The Explorer Channel, The North Carolina Channel and Rootle (24/7 Kids). We receive state and federal funding, as well as private funds such as individual donors, grants and corporate gifts.

We tell the story of North Carolina, and that isn’t something other stations can do as well as we can. Our relationship with our audience is the backbone of our fundraising efforts. If we lose the audience, our ability to bring revenue streams becomes hampered.

Our broadcast audience is very important to us. But it’s not the only one we can or should serve, and it has been shrinking. Our broadcast audience is around 1.3 million viewers each month, served by four 24/7 broadcast services. The decline we are seeing in our broadcast viewership is in line with what PBS is seeing nationally.

Audiences are not consuming less content, but they are now finding it in new ways that are more convenient for their viewing habits. No longer are our broadcast streams the only way North Carolinians can enjoy PBS content. As those audiences migrate to other platforms, it has become important for UNC-TV to find ways to produce content for consumption online.

Our broadcast audience is a dedicated fan base, but it is aging and getting smaller. The threat of losing our broadcast audience isn’t imminent, but data show that in the near future (about five years), more people will consume more media online than on traditional broadcast.

There were several issues we tried to address with our new strategy:

  • Freeing up capacity that was used to serve a mostly broadcast audience and shifting resources to digital media creation and distribution
  • Fostering the ability to shift content creation priorities quickly based on news events and topics, without derailing scheduling commitments
  • Building audiences across platforms and meeting audiences where they are consuming content
  • Freshening up our content

Our staff of 150 was trapped by workflows and expectations that left little room for planning, diversifying our distribution methods or creating audience-focused content. Our shows routinely produced online content, but there was little strategy behind that effort. And the digital content was mostly an afterthought. Our editorial decisions were also affected by our “fill the broadcast schedule” approach to local programs.

Our rigid workflows made it hard to fit in breaking stories without disrupting other deadlines. The standard approach was to create full-length TV programs. That required a lot of staff to create 30 to 60 minutes’ worth of programming that, while technically sound, often wasn’t as engaging as it could be.

Producers needed more time in the field, in edit rooms and in studios to improve that quality. That was hard with a rigorous workload. We had to identify what we were going to stop doing — or do less of —and what we needed to do instead. All of that was also part of our plan to increase our audience engagement and diversify our revenue streams.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A: This approach is related to Table Stake No. 2 (Publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences), Table Stake No. 3 (Produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs) and Table Stake No. 5 (Diversify and grow the ways you earn revenue from the audiences you build).

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: We had to shift resources and scale back on our broadcast content. We reduced the number of episodes of one weekly program (on air for 15 years) from 52 episodes a year to half of that, and we made the tough decision to broadcast repeats for 26 weeks a year. Overall, we decided to focus our programming on North Carolina-specific content.

We had enough resources to create short 4- to 8-minute local features  for eight shows a year. But instead of producing those short features throughout the year, we produced a batch in the fall and another batch in the spring, and posted them online as soon as they were available.

We broadcast these short pieces in between longer programs. These newly produced short pieces kept things fresh even when the longer programs were repeats. And we developed the flexibility to produce these features quickly off news events, making the pieces more timely and relevant to our audience. For example, when Hurricane Florence hit the North Carolina coast, we quickly created short pieces about storm damage, recovery efforts and available resources. The short pieces could easily be swapped out with regularly scheduled short interstitial content, without interrupting other regularly scheduled full-length programs.

In terms of resources, we created a media innovations team charged with creating digital-first content. We hired/shifted three positions to handle this work, but other staff members are also producing social media content.

We moved away from producing the traditional half-hour local show. That gave us more time to produce stories for other platforms, including YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Our Instagram audience is growing, and our Facebook engagement rate is high. We are now discussing how we can grow our YouTube audience.

UNC-TV has seen significant growth and engagement on Instagram, where, as of February 2020, it has more than 42,000 followers.

Running our content on a variety of platforms and in new broadcast time slots resulted in an increase in impressions for that content. Instead of having one shot to reach audiences, we now deliver our content to where other audiences already are. And our funding partners have responded positively to the increased reach of our content.

We received $195,000 in funding based on pitches we made to sponsors around this strategy. That included an additional $50,000 from long-term funders of established programs.

The local content teams started making shorter shows and supplying program shorts to our programming department. The director of programming had to start building the new schedule with these new show parameters. Once program shorts were being scheduled, the sales team could then count the metrics and use the aggregate audiences for a brand in discussions with potential funders.

We found that viewers will stay for a short program, even if the short has a different theme from the preceding episode. In the past year, we’ve run science shorts after our “NC Weekend” program, and viewership has stayed flat.

Q: What worked?

A: One of our fears was that increasing our repeats in local programming would drive our audience away. By and large, that didn’t happen, although our audience dropped for some shows during repeats.

We were concerned about producing a shorter version of our most popular show, “North Carolina Weekend,” but we found that the audience stuck around to watch the short feature that would follow the show — and the audience even grew for “Sci NC,” a science program.

Our staff feels more empowered to create content on digital platforms and is excited about overall audience growth for our brand. We are seeing more collaboration across departments to create and distribute content online. For instance, our “NC Weekend” digital producer/associate producer now creates 24 weeks of social-friendly 1-minute shorts  for Instagram/Facebook, with a style and focus developed with our marketing and communications team to help build our “NC Weekend” brand.

Because the content is released as segments and not as just entire shows, that piece of content can find its most interested audience. With broadcast, our audience members are primarily women older than 65. When we post the same content on Facebook, we see the audience is still mostly female, but the largest number of those fans are between 45 and 64, skewing a little younger than our traditional broadcast audience.

We are creating blogs in each of our verticals, monthly newsletters and weekly social media posts. We have also created Facebook groups around topics such as science and literature, as well as Instagram accounts for shows.

Our UNC-TV Science Instagram account tells science stories from across the state, taking a closer look at some of North Carolina’s curious oddities and cutting-edge discoveries. Launched in early 2019, the account boasts an extraordinary 17.5% engagement rate (per follower). Both North Carolina Weekend and My Home, NC share regular Instagram posts using a mix of user-generated content and local stories. In the last year, we have seen monumental growth for both these feeds, with a current combined audience of more than 42,000 followers.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: We still don’t have a fully integrated approach to how our interstitials are programmed. Our content teams need to work more closely with our programming staff to develop our distribution strategy and plan our release schedules accordingly.

We are now including social at our weekly content meetings, and that has been a great success. We are working collaboratively across departments, and although there have been some missteps, I hesitate to dwell on them or to categorize them as not working.

Why? Because so much of this process is about failing forward. The biggest thing that didn’t work is when teams felt isolated from the process and not included in the decision-making. Leadership must be there to pull teams together and make sure collaboration is happening.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: I would have told a stronger narrative to better communicate why our new strategy was vital to our future. Most of my presentations to staff about the new approach were thorough, but there was so much detail that I think the story was lost. Telling each part of the strategy separately and more succinctly might have helped. I should have had more one-on-one discussions with team members or smaller staff gatherings.

I would have stopped doing certain things a lot earlier to be able to shift to our new approach sooner. I held onto certain expectations that I feel were my own and not universal to the organization.

I thought that if at the start of the season we said there would be X number of episodes, then I had to deliver that number. But that number was determined before we had made our shift to digital media content. Getting out of those locked-in workflows was more important to moving forward.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: When you build support for a new initiative, you need that support at all levels, but you have to start with your leadership. Producing stories across multiple platforms changes a lot of people’s workflows. You need your leaders to help your staff go through that disruption.

That is tough, because there are some staff members who have a difficult time letting go of traditional workflows and traditional audiences. These staff members can become passive-aggressive roadblocks to change.

That is especially hard if they do not fall under your direct supervision. They also become the naysayers, talking down the new ideas to others on the team who would otherwise be enthusiastic about the change. In their eyes, the only way that you can improve the product is to go back to the way it was. Getting them on board requires compromise, listening and collaboration.

Not all of their opinions are wrong. Getting them to turn their negative feedback into constructive criticism is very important to avoid pitfalls when you are venturing into unfamiliar territory.

Over time, you have to demonstrate that a multiplatform approach doesn’t result in less audience — it actually leads to a broader audience. You have to demonstrate that you aren’t simply cutting back on content, but repurposing content or creating it more strategically.

Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?

A: Don’t be afraid to break the things that you have control over. Nothing is permanent. If your new approach doesn’t work, try something else or return to the tried-and-true. But you simply won’t change your culture if you stand still.

Don’t let one person or a small group derail the new direction. Use the power that you have and change what you can. That sometimes forces change in other areas.

Keep working to better understand your audience, as well as new potential audiences. Question the assumptions that you, your organization or the industry have about the audience.

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