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

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

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

Live news and sports keep a significant number of viewers tuned in to traditional television. But the audience migration to online video has led the news divisions of the “Big Three” broadcast networks to enter deeper into the 24-hour news business through free, ad-supported channels accessible on Internet-connected television sets and mobile devices.

Walt Disney Co.’s ABC, Paramount Global’s CBS and Comcast’s NBC have all stepped up their investments in their services, giving viewers a destination for their anytime reporting without a pay-TV subscription.

The channels — NBC News Now, ABC News Live and CBS News Streaming — launched over the past decade without much fanfare. But they have been quietly building audiences, and the presidents of the news divisions all say their services are profitable. Each offers a mix of reruns of network television newscasts and original live reports and documentaries.

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

“By and large, every reporter wants their stories to be seen by as many people as possible,” said Neeraj Khemlani, president and co-head of news and stations for CBS. “People feel they want to be part of the future.”

Network executives say they see steady growth in streaming audiences, especially on election nights and after major news events such as the death of Queen Elizabeth II or Hurricane Ian, which devastated parts of Florida in late September.

“The growth trajectory suggests it will be a phenomenal business in the months and years ahead,” said NBC News president Noah Oppenheim, whose network added 200 positions last year to build out 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 a month in 2022, a 55% increase over last year, based on data from Comscore and other sources. ABC News said ABC News Live had 41 million streaming hours in September, up 73% from last year.

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CBS News Streaming added original primetime shows in January — using big name anchors like Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King — and has seen its audience grow 55% as a result. CBS has also added full-time streaming of local news channels using content from its stations in 13 markets, including KCBS in Los Angeles.

ABC News Live anchor Linsey Davis.

ABC News Live anchor Linsey Davis.

(ABC News)

Viewers will get a sense of what the streaming channels can offer Tuesday as they tackle the 2022 midterm elections. Each will stream its prime-time TV coverage starting at 5 p.m. Pacific, when polls begin to close across the country. But they will be on earlier for the streaming audience and will likely provide continuous reporting throughout the rest of the week as many gubernatorial, Senate and congressional races are likely to be contested.

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

Some of the projects caught on, such as “Stay Tuned,” a youth-oriented newscast NBC News produces for the social media app Snapchat.

But the move to full-time streaming news channels is now seen as necessary if broadcast news is to survive after the generation that grew up with it leaves this mortal coil.

“If we just try to go after 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 the audience watching the evening newscasts—a staple of the networks since the 1950s that still attracts nearly 20 million viewers each night—is over 65. That’s why viewers watch so many commercials for pharmaceutical products on the broadcasts.

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

In previous attempts to capture the digital audience, networks experimented with more informal presentations of news stories, believing that would appeal to younger viewers. But the television landscape has changed so dramatically, news streaming channels don’t need to cater to the TikTok audience. The median age of viewers who stream news is up to 25 years younger than the traditional television news audience.

“When we’re talking a younger audience, we’re talking 30- to 40-year-olds,” Rodriguez said. “People who pay taxes. They vote 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 are a lot like conventional TV news, with anchors at a desk covering a wide range of topics. There is no partisan commentary, as executives see their services as an alternative to cable news channels, where opinion hosts draw the largest audiences on conservative-leaning Fox News and NBCUniversal’s progressive outlet, MSNBC.

John Dickerson is the host "CBS News Prime Time" on CBS News Streaming.

John Dickerson will host “CBS News Prime Time” on CBS News Streaming.

(Gail Schulman/CBS)

“It’s an old-fashioned, straightforward approach to giving people a sense of what’s going on around them,” Oppenheim said. “The core NBC News brand has always followed a straight-down-the-middle, nonpartisan approach to journalism, and now we have a platform to showcase that.”

Todd, NBC News’ political director and moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday roundtable, was an early participant in the division’s streaming effort when it launched three years ago. He welcomed earlier this year moving the daily MSNBC version of “Meet the Press” to streaming.

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

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 has been able to get all the resources of NBC News to contribute to his “Top Story” program. He also traveled to anchor his program from hot spots such as Ukraine.

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

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

Godwin noted that ABC News Live has become the first stop for breaking stories. The days of waiting to present a scoop on a scheduled broadcast program are over.

“The model of the past was: Keep it for ‘World News Tonight’ or ‘Good Morning America’ or whatever the next thing that pops up was,” she said. “Now it doesn’t matter.”

Cable news is expected to enter the direct-to-consumer streaming business at some point. But their parent companies want to avoid disrupting the substantial revenue the networks get from pay-TV operators.

Fox News currently has Fox Nation, a subscription service that offers prime-time documentaries, movies and reruns of its opinion shows, but no live news. Executives at Fox Corporation said Fox Nation could at some point serve as a way to distribute the 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 Warner Bros. Discovery took over. Insiders at CNN believe that the network will eventually become part of a larger streaming service from the merged company.

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