TV News Heats Up As New Players Join Fray

TV analysis: Al Jazeera America, Fusion launches may grab headlines today, but news outlets would do well to pay digital more heed

TV news aficionados have long grown accustomed to the round-the-clock chatter emanating from boob-tube newsrooms. More of that talk these days is about the news outlets themselves.

Fox News Channel is about to embark on a change to its primetime lineup, the first time it has made a pronounced shift there in years. If you believe the web, Alec Baldwin may be in talks to take over a Friday-night hour on MSNBC. CNN is giving Anderson Cooper a second prime-time hour at 10 p.m., during which he may square off with Lawrence O’Donnell or Greta Van Susteren or someone else, depending on Fox’s ultimate decision. Morning is ripe for competition, too: Elisabeth Hasselbeck is expected to hold forth on Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends” starting in September; CNN is only a few weeks into the launch of its new ayem outlet, “New Day.”

Meantime, NBC’s “Nightly News” is trying to fend off ABC’s “World News” in the ratings just as the new president of NBC News, Deborah Turness, starts her tenure in her new role.

To be sure, TV-news divisions and networks are always tweaking their lineups, schedules and business. But this latest batch of maneuvering takes place as two new news rivals with top financial backing are poised to enter the market.

Al-Jazeera America is set to launch August 20 and while the Qatar-backed outlet won’t have distribution on some extremely important cable services, including Time Warner Cable, its emphasis on stories that often require in-depth reportage could make its content stand out from the rest of the cable-news pack. Fusion, a cable news-and-lifestyle network backed by Univision and Walt Disney’s ABC, is aimed at Hispanic viewers, a segment that is only expected to grow in importance and economic power as subsequent generations of Latinos come of age in the U.S.

“There is a desire to try to own the few remaining news niches that is motivating new entrants,” said Christopher Vollmer, who heads the global media and entertainment practice at consultant Booz & Co. “ This is what is driving Fusion and Al Jazeera.” Among the other players, he added, “Much of the investment appears to be focused on a broadening the definition of news coverage – moving further into entertainment/celebrity, disaster coverage, big court cases/trials and other more human interest-focused stories versus traditional hard news,” around politics, business or investigative reporting.

These new players join the fray as economic trends for both cable and broadcast-news outlets appear less robust.

Fox and MSNBC both saw continued growth in total revenue and profits in 2012, according to research from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, but at a slower rate. CNN saw flat total revenue, according to Pew’s “The State of the News Media 2013” report. CNN’s U.S. operations have seen some ratings momentum in 2013. At the three broadcast-network newscasts, Pew found the combined viewership of ABC’s “World News,” NBC’s “Nightly News” and CBS’s “Evening News” dropped 2%, “resuming a downward trajectory of nearly three decades.”

With all this in mind, are there enough ratings to go around to support all the players?

Even as the various networks enact moves to reinvigorate their TV lineups, they may have to turn their attention to other venues, and quickly. Indeed, Pew Research data shows that “between 2010 and 2012, the number of U.S. adults who said they watched cable news regularly fell 5 percentage points, from 39% to 34%. Meanwhile, the percentage of people who said they got news regularly from social networks rose 13 points to 20%, and those who got news regularly from a mobile device rose 6 points to 15%”

“There is also recognition that digital- not TV – is the first-screen for many users and consumers of news, especially those under 50,” said Vollmer.

Small wonder, then, that CNN has put approximately $15 million behind reworking its digital infrastructure, which the Time Warner network disclosed Wednesday. MSNBC is planning to launch a new web-site aimed at drawing people interested in progressive politics. ABC has expanded its relationship with Yahoo News, with the two partners unveiling in April a plan to run original content from ABC News on Yahoo related to shows like “World News” and “Nightline.” ABC’s “Good Morning America” has had a digital presence bolstered by Yahoo for years.

The debut of Al Jazeera and Fusion will bring more heat to an already intense battle among news rivals. And it’s true, without the TV product working and drawing good ratings, the extensions to mobile, digital and social will be tenuous rather than strong. But if the news crew doesn’t work harder to push its content out to digital users, they will miss out on critical viewership as well as advertising dollars.

Anderson Cooper, Megyn Kelly and Alec Baldwin can all hold forth in front of a camera, but their backers will have to make sure they also have a roost on Twitter and tablet screens, too.

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