NBCU leverages collaboration, tech for local and regional FAST news channels

NBCUniversal’s local FAST portfolio marked channel growth and expanded distribution over the past year, and its owned stations are leveraging tech and collaboration to cater to communities, including underserved Hispanic viewers, via 24/7 free streaming.

NBCU Local executives Meredith McGinn and Ozzie Martinez spoke with StreamTV Insider about the growth of the local and regional FAST news and lifestyle channels and how they’re engaging audiences.

Since launching in early 2022, NBCU’s local FAST portfolio has grown to 15. That includes 11 English-language and four regional Telemundo FAST channels. The four Spanish-language channels focused on California, Florida, Texas and the Northeast debuted roughly a year ago and mark collaborations between multiple Telemundo-owned stations.

Together they joined four additional platforms in 2023 for a presence on nine streaming and CTV platforms. Those include NBCU’s own Peacock, Xumo Play, Samsung TV Plus, The Roku Channel, Amazon’s Freevee and Fire TV, Local Now, Google TV and TCL. More launches are planned, the company said.

Speaking to STV, McGinn, EVP of Diginets & Original Production at NBCU Local, said while NBC knew there was incredible growth in connected TV sales when launching the channels, one remaining gap was a lack of local news for viewers without a cable subscription.

“So we had the opportunity to take all of the stations in big markets all across the country, leverage the important journalism and the highly produced newscasts that they were doing, day-in and day-out and build 24/7 channels,” she commented.

A regional FAST approach to Spanish-language news

Early on, through NBC’s partnership with Peacock, the team saw local channels were getting viewership even outside of their primary market. McGinn and Martinez explained that NBCU leveraged insights from its English-language channels and interest from nearby markets to influence strategy for the Telemundo channels. 

They built out the regional news channels coordinating all Telemundo stations in those regions, “where we knew there were many Hispanic viewers looking for an always-on source for local news,” McGinn said. “And it’s a strategy that’s been working.”

The four regional FAST channels are led by flagship stations in each market (such as New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Houston and Dallas). Leveraging the flagship stations, the Telemundo FAST channels tap nearby local stations “to subsidize the programming grid so that we maintain viewers in that entire state or area,” Martinez, EVP of News, Original Programming & Standards for Telemundo at NBCU Local, said.

Hispanic consumers have a reputation as early and strong adopters of digital and streaming overall, and that’s “certainly been the case with the FAST channels,” he said in terms of minutes spent and length of tune-in.

On traditional linear broadcast, Martinez cited average tune-in length between 13 to 17 minutes depending on the market – but on the Spanish-language FAST channels it’s seeing 20-plus minutes.

Although strong adopters, recent Altman Solon research found Hispanic consumers remain unsatisfied or underserved by streaming content options offered.

Martinez also acknowledged fewer choices for Hispanic viewers but noted NBCU’s regional FAST approach is resonating. The strategy continues to work so well that it’s currently evaluating launching additional channels in other regions for the coming year, he said.

To fill the void, NBCU plans to first look in areas where it has Spanish-language TV station clusters. For example, the Southwest region and Puerto Rico – the latter for which he cited a lot of interest across the country.

“There are more Puerto Ricans living in the mainland than there are in Puerto Rico,” Martinez said. “I think that one especially we have very high hopes for because we do think there’ll be a lot of interest in Puerto Rico.”

Additionally, NBC plans to lean into bilingual productions. The company already does this on linear and is still playing with the concept for FAST, but Martinez noted early success with cultural and community events, such as parades, versus straight newscasts.

Bolstering content for 24/7 news channels

One aspect about FAST news channels that differ from traditional broadcast is they can stream 24/7 – providing the opportunity and challenge to deliver more content.

According to McGinn, both English and Spanish-language NBCU stations have added significantly more original content to the streaming channels.

Streaming means NBC can go “wall-to-wall in a more extended fashion than we would normally be able to do on linear” for big stories like hurricanes or other developing news, she added.

Martinez too emphasized FAST channels allow for extra programming that wouldn’t be able to fit into traditional linear. This includes investigative and longer-form docu-style pieces created for digital that have been built into linear programs, which McGinn noted “are very useful and additive to the streaming schedule.”

Going forward, the team wants to expand live events coverage on FAST following successes like the Chicago Marathon, which had eight hours of coverage on the local channel and saw “record engagement.”

Tech-enabled collaboration

Playing into expanded content are technical capabilities – another aspect of NBCU’s local FAST strategy where it built streaming channel infrastructure utilizing new technology.

“We were very deliberate in leaning into new technology to find different, more efficient, more nimble ways of building all of the channels,” McGinn said.

It’s no longer just a traditional control room setup. Instead NBCU leans on cloud server and virtual production control room technology that enables certain capabilities, such as taking a news conference or reporter to air, to be done with a laptop from anywhere. This has “afforded us the ability to really be aggressive in this space and be more reactive as things come up,” Martinez said.

Technology also allows the stations to be more collaborative. Multiple stations, for example, created a program for the Northeast FAST region, bringing together producers and talent for an evening show that’s hosted out of Boston but produced from New York with collaborations out of Philadelphia and Washington.

“All these stations are literally coming together to put on an experience on FAST whereas, it’s not just one group of people sitting in one place doing it,” he said.

Platform partnerships and standing out

NBC Local expanded reach with new platforms but it's far from the only option for people seeking news sources. As part of its work to stand out, McGinn said a big focus for teams day-to-day is partnership marketing of the channels.

To that end, NBC built relationships with streaming platforms to ensure they’re aware of breaking news or specials it’s scheduling and to help them “push the creativity and functionality of their platforms to reach new users and draw attention to the channels.”  That’s shown up in the form of lower-third banners that direct-link to the NBC channels or graphics to grab attention about events like elections. NBC’s also done push notifications with some platforms that can be targeted to viewers in a particular zip code.

News on FAST has been pegged as a performer by multiple platforms -  a trend McGinn affirmed. She said NBC’s seen viewers search for information when breaking news happen, which has driven “significant awareness” that the free streaming channels even exist.

The Noticias Telemundo Florida Channel, for example, carried 15 hours of live continuous coverage when Hurricane Idalia hit the Tampa Bay area in August, which resulted in record-setting spikes in viewership.

“We’ve seen huge lifts in impressions for breaking news. And in many cases, those events have set new benchmarks for our channels on the platforms,” McGinn noted.