At CBS News, the Future May Not Be TV

Analysis: At the home of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, a live video-streamed news broadcast called CBSN is gaining significant traction

At CBS News, The Future May
Courtesy CBS News

If Josh Elliott is anchoring the news broadcast, it must be a substantial one.

Each day he is on duty, Elliott gets up just after 4 a.m. and readies himself for a tough task: several hours of live delivery of the news of the day – as it happens – on a video feed known as CBSN. Anyone with a broadband connection can get it, whether it comes through a desktop, Roku or Apple TV. On a recent Tuesday morning, Elliott could be spotted pivoting from an emotional story about a Brussels bombing victim reuniting with his family to a live interview with a Donald Trump campaign spokeswoman, all while nodding to trending stories on CBSNews.com or handing over the stream to ads for Snapchat and Sunsweet prune juice.

A TV-news traditionalist might wrinkle a brow, but at CBS, the thinking is that Elliott just hitched himself to the next big thing. “I don’t have any question at this point that this is certainly how people are looking for news,” Elliott said during a recent interview. “It’s not an idea any more. It’s reality.”

Elliott is best known for his time as the news anchor at ABC’s “Good Morning America.” While he was there, the show became the most-watched morning program in the nation. If you were to remark that CBSN is not “GMA,” CBS executives would urge you to be patient.

Home to the legacies of Edward R. Murrow, Fred Friendly and Walter Cronkite, CBS News is not often confused for a digital of-the-moment upstart like Vice Media. Yet these days, the two have more in common than you might think. Under CEO Shane Smith, Vice has bet on a strategy that involves producing video series and then tailoring their formatting and flow depending on the distribution method and the audience. A visitor to Vice’s online site might sample a 15-minute-plus video of Action Bronson sampling truffles. On cable, Bronson’s “F-ck, That’s Delicious” is a staple of the company’s new Viceland.

Now, CBS News appears to be adopting similar tactics. When CBSN first launched in late 2014, it used  a lot of segments that appeared first on “CBS This Morning” and “CBS Evening News.” These days, CBSN viewers are seeing more reports on that service first before they appear on the unit’s well-known TV broadcasts.  CBS News is moving quickly to make CBSN more a part of its regular operations, in the belief that viewers no longer differentiate between a TV screen and one that is part of a mobile tablet – and no longer see any variation in quality between programming that comes on each week at, say, 9 p.m., and video that they chose to view with an Amazon Fire stick.

“News is not going to hold. Over time, more things are going to debut on CBSN and then flow to other broadcasts,” said David Rhodes, the president of CBS News, in an interview.  “You’d have to really have your head in the sand not to say this is where the business is going.”

Indeed, at a recent conference held for investors, CBS Corp. was quite blunt about how it sees CBSN. “This is the future of CBS News,” said Marc Debevoise, executive vice president and general manager, at the meeting.

He wasn’t joking. Already, CBS News has taken steps to make its CBSN stream more a part of the routine. Starting this weekend, CBSN anchors will handle a retooled “CBS Weekend News” that will make use of stories that have already streamed to viewers. And there’s a sense that CBSN can be used for long form programming as well as shorter live updates: In January, the news division launched the first in a series of “CBS Originals,” or documentary programs on CBSN. Some of that content has found its way to CBS News TV programs. “They took our original content and they used it on broadcast,” said Nancy Lane, senior executive producer for CBS News Digital. “We are starting to see the content come from us and go to them, which to me is a big barrier to get over.”  When Charlie Rose recently scored an interview with President Obama, it first surfaced on CBSN, in a segment that lasted about two minutes – an eternity on a modern TV newscast.

“I think the numbers show that people stick around for this,” said Vladimir Duthiers, a CBS News correspondent who anchors and does reports for CBSN. He has explored volatile suburbs around Paris and Brussels in the wake of terrorism for the CBSN documentaries. “There’s an appetite for this type of stuff, especially for cord cutters who have decided not to have cable for whatever reason.”

 What has encouraged CBS executives in the roughly 18 months CBSN has been up and running is the length of tune-in by users. The average time someone watched CBSN during the first quarter was 29 minutes on  mobile,38 minutes on desktop and 45 minutes via connected TV devices. The median age of viewers is around 38, said Debevoise – a marked contrast to the mature crowd that regularly tunes in for evening newscasts. CBSN drew 48.6 million streams in the first quarter, an increase of 47% from 33 million streams in the fourth quarter of last year.

“During the day, when people are at work, this is the only place they can go for this kind of live news coverage” without access to a TV, said Jim Lanzone, president and CEO of CBS’s digital operations.

To be sure, there are plenty of players in the 24/7 news skirmish. A rabid news consumer can simply take to Twitter and Facebook to get the latest headlines. CBS is playing up elements that give it an advantage. CBSN isn’t a cable outlet, so there’s no worry about having to placate cable companies who would take umbrage at an original feed going out to people who don’t subscribe. There’s no authentication required to watch Elliott at work.

Other news outlets have tried their hand at beaming information to the rising generation of millenials who prefer consumption on the go. CNN last fall launched Great Big Story,  a streaming-video outlet that focuses on good  yarns: a shark-attack survivor who plunges back into the ocean or a family that has brewed sake for generations. MSNBC tested its hand with a hub called “Shift” that debuted in late 2014 and aimed to develop a range of live shows led by new personalities for the NBCUniversal-owned outlet. In recent months, some of those ambitions have been scaled back in the wake of a new focus on breaking news at the cable network. At Shift, the new emphasis is on developing  some content for video-on-demand

No news outlet can afford to ignore a new legion of news junkies and their developing habits. Mobile visits to news sites have become more common than those made by desktop, according to data from the Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media 2015” report. Mobile ad spending now accounts for 37% of all digital ad spending, the Pew report said, citing data from eMarketer, up from 25% in 2013.  And traffic performance at CBS News’ digital properties has in the past been topped by ABC News, which has a partnership with Yahoo, and CNN.

CBS executives say they wanted to beef up the network’s presence but were wary of going the obvious route: cable. “We wanted to sort of just skip that.  Cable is a little bit for news like railroads. If you already have the track laid and you’re making live programming, you may as well stay in that business. But no one would go out today. It would be a waste of resources,” said Rhodes. “You’ve seen that with Al Jazeera buying Current for an absurd amount of money, and with Fusion and with Disney investing. These are not insignificant companies getting into cable when the audience they were seeking was getting out. We tried not to make those mistakes and went straight to OTT.”

The marriage of live video news and digital distribution allows for new kinds of promotion and outreach. When a big or exclusive story breaks, executives behind the scenes reach out to CBSN distributors like Roku. “We are working with them day in and day out to see how do we promote breaking news or news events we can predict,”explained Christy Tanner, senior vice president and general manger of CBS News Digital. “It’s a different thing when you can tweet a link and say to someone, ‘Watch this live,’ than it is if you say ‘Program alert – this is coming up on the network.’”

Elliott’s arrival took much of the industry by surprise. After all, he had left “Good Morning America” to join NBC Sports, amid speculation that NBC was grooming him to take over for Matt Lauer at “Today.” Whatever the terms of the agreement, things didn’t work out. Elliott left NBC Sports late last year, before his contract was up.

He started talking to CBS over the winter. And while he has made appearances on “CBS This Morning,” Rhodes said there was little concern about where Elliott would be seen the most. Five years ago, Rhodes said, a TV journalist like Elliott might have demurred at a digital offer. In 2016,”people don’t’ say that any more.”

Elliott said he’s happy to take on all opportunities whether they involve digital or TV.  “I try not to think too much about where it is people are watching me,” he said. As the TV industry continues to grasp through a time of great change, one can bet CBS will.