Why free streaming channels could be the future of broadcast TV news

If TV news legends Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley were alive and reporting today, you’d probably see them on a streaming channel.

Live news and sports keep a significant number of viewers tuned into traditional television. But audience migration to online video has prompted the news departments of the “Big Three” broadcast networks to delve deeper into the 24-hour news business through free, ad-supported channels accessible via internet-connected TVs and mobile devices.

Walt Disney Co.’s ABC, Paramount Global’s CBS and Comcast’s NBC have all increased their investments in their services, offering viewers a destination for their coverage at any time without a pay-TV subscription.

The channels — NBC News Now, ABC News Live, and CBS News Streaming — launched without much fanfare over the past decade. But they’ve quietly built an audience, and news department presidents all say their services are profitable. Each offers a mix of network TV newscast reruns and original live coverage and documentaries.

Networks have signed their well-known personalities to daily live programming on the channels, such as NBC’s Chuck Todd, Kate Snow and Hallie Jackson; ABC’s Linsey Davis; and CBS’ John Dickerson – a sign that they know where viewers are going.

“Broadly speaking, every reporter wants their stories to be seen by as many people as possible,” said Neeraj Khemlani, president and co-head of news and networks at CBS. “People feel like they want to be part of that future.”

Network executives say they’re seeing steady growth in their streaming audience, especially on election nights and after big news events like the death of Queen Elizabeth II or Hurricane Ian, which devastated parts of Florida in late September.

“The growth trajectory suggests it’s going to be phenomenal business in the coming months and years,” said Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News, whose network created 200 jobs over the past year to build the division’s streaming operations. “We’ve been able to monetize advertiser demand because we can deliver eyeballs.”

NBC News says its service will average 34 million streaming hours per month in 2022, up 55% year over year, based on data from Comscore and other sources. According to ABC News, ABC News Live had 41 million hours of streaming in September, up 73% year over year.

CBS News Streaming added original prime-time programming in January — featuring well-known presenters like Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King — and saw a 55% increase in viewership as a result. CBS has also added full-time local news streaming channels using content from its stations in 13 markets, including KCBS in Los Angeles.

Viewers will get a taste of what streaming channels can offer on Tuesday as they wrap up the 2022 midterm elections. Each will stream their network TV coverage in prime time, which begins at 5 p.m. Pacific Time, when polling stations across the country begin to close. But they’ll be available earlier for streaming audiences and will likely continue reporting throughout the rest of the week as many gubernatorial, Senate and congressional elections are likely to be held.

Broadcast TV news departments have been trying to understand the streaming business since the days of dial-up modems, with online programming experiments going back two decades. They partnered with various digital companies like Microsoft and Yahoo and made content available on social media sites like Facebook and YouTube.

Some of the projects caught on, like Stay Tuned, a youth-focused news show that NBC News produces for the social media app Snapchat.

But the shift to full-time streaming news channels is now seen as necessary if broadcast news is to survive now that the generation that grew up with it has exited that deadly spiral.

“If we’re just trying to reach younger viewers with traditional news outlets, we’re leaving them all behind,” said Janelle Rodriguez, senior vice president, editorial for NBC News.

Data from Nielsen shows that the median age of audiences watching evening news programs – a staple of broadcasters since the 1950s that still draws almost 20 million viewers a night – is over 65. This is why viewers see so many commercials for pharmaceutical products on the shows.

“I have daughters who are in their 20s who don’t watch our programs on linear television, and I don’t think they ever will,” said Kim Godwin, president of ABC News. “They are well informed and receive their news via a variety of streaming, digital and social media channels.”

In previous efforts to tap into digital audiences, networks experimented with more informal presentations of news stories, believing this would appeal to younger viewers. But the TV landscape has changed so dramatically that news streaming channels don’t have to give in to the TikTok crowd. The median age of streaming news viewers is up to 25 years younger than traditional TV news audiences.

“When we’re talking about a younger audience, we’re talking about 30- to 40-year-olds,” Rodriguez said. “People who pay taxes. you choose more. They may be more connected to what’s going on in the world, but they’re young enough that their habits have changed.”

The streaming networks look like traditional TV news, with presenters at a desk covering a wide range of topics. There is no partisan political commentary, as executives believe their services are an alternative to cable news networks, where newscasters draw the largest audiences at conservative-leaning Fox News and MSNBC, NBCUniversal’s progressive channel.

“It’s a straight-forward, old-school approach to giving people a sense of what’s going on around them,” Oppenheim said. “The core brand, NBC News, has always adhered to a no-nonsense, impartial approach to journalism, and now we have a platform to showcase that.”

Todd, political director of NBC News and host of NBC’s Sunday roundtable program “Meet the Press,” was an early participant in the department’s streaming efforts when they launched three years ago. He welcomed the opportunity earlier this year to switch MSNBC’s daily version of “Meet thePress” to streaming.

“The exciting thing about news now is that we have an audience that comes first to news and information, and not necessarily an audience that is driven first by a jersey color,” Todd said. “It was great for booking.”

Each of the channels has a prime-time nightly newscast — Davis on ABC News Live, Dickerson on CBS News Streaming, and Tom Llamas on NBC News Now. Llamas said he was able to obtain the full resources of NBC News to contribute to his Top Story program. He also traveled to host his programming from breaking news hot spots such as Ukraine.

“For streaming to work, it can’t be a cheap product,” Llamas said in a recent interview at his office at NBC’s New York headquarters. “I don’t want people to look at the show and say it’s a good streaming show. I want them to say it’s a great news show. It’s as good as NBC Nightly News and Today or anything else out there.”

Davis said having a full hour each night allows her to delve deeper into the stories. “Hopefully we deliver the nuance that you can’t deliver in a 22-minute evening news show,” she said.

Godwin noted that ABC News Live has become the go-to destination for breaking stories. The era of waiting to present a scoop on a scheduled show is over.

“The model of the past was, Keep it ‘World News Tonight,’ or ‘Good Morning America,’ or whatever the next show was,” she said. “Now nothing can hold it anymore.”

Cable news is expected to eventually enter the direct-to-consumer streaming business. But its parent companies want to avoid disrupting the sizable revenue networks receive from pay-TV operators.

Fox News currently has Fox Nation, a subscription service that offers documentaries, films and prime-time reruns of its opinion shows, but no live news. Fox Corporation executives said Fox Nation could eventually serve as a way to spread Fox News Channel if the shrinking universe of pay-TV customers is no longer viable.

CNN abandoned a plan for a direct-to-consumer streaming channel service when new parent company Warner Bros. acquired Discovery. Insiders at CNN believe the network will eventually be part of a larger streaming service from the merged company.

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