Rebooting Walter Cronkite: Broadcast News Rushes to Broadband

Walter Cronkite Media Broadband
Cronkite: Glasshouse Images/REX/Shutterstock; Illustration: Variety

What do a presidential summit, a blooming flower, and the sight of the rolling highway from a trucker’s windshield have in common? ABC News has deployed dozens of staffers at its New York headquarters to identify images such as these, collect them and get them ready to glide across smartphone screens – all in a bid to capture the interest of a rising generation of news junkies who no longer think first about turning on a TV when important headlines start to flash.

“We are constantly looking across the globe for the most interesting live moment happening now,” explains Colby Smith, ABC News’ senior vice president of content and partnerships, who oversees the unit’s embryonic live-streaming effort.

At any given time, ABC News staffers may look at feeds from the Associated Press, or live video from NASA International Space Station camera, which can provide illuminating views as severe storms and hurricanes start to swirl. They might recently have examined images of U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen climbing a greased statue; live shots of ABC News correspondents at the recent rescue of boys trapped in a network of caves in Thailand; or scenes transmitted by a trucker named “Big Rig Steve” who has set up a camera that lets the world see the view from the dashboard of his eighteen-wheeler. Any of it might prove useful in a pinch for ABC News’ service, ABC News Live, which is already rolling on Roku and other venues. “We want to be everywhere,” says Smith.

ABC News and its rivals NBC News and CBS News are rushing into an era in which their core viewer doesn’t have a decades-old tradition of appointment viewing with “Good Morning America,” “NBC Nightly News” or “Face the Nation.” Leapfrogged by cable years ago in the 24/7 news game, the broadcasters are utilizing mobile video to try to establish a new beachhead. But there’s no guarantee their decades-old TV brands will help them against a growing array of video upstarts that range from Cheddar to Vice. Besides, other stalwarts like CNN and Fox News are also getting in the game.

The traditional networks bring with them heft, infrastructure, and decades of expertise, but “you can’t count out the value of the content that perhaps an upstart brings to the table,” says Paul Gluck, an associate professor of media studies and production at Philadelphia’s Temple University. “Maybe that alternate vision that comes from a Vice or a Cheddar can be of great value to an audience that is more likely to consume the news on a live stream.” He won’t count the networks out. He feels they have more to offer when the audience demands depth and analysis in addition to a you-are-there news reportage.

ABC’s recent push comes after months of building infrastructure that gives news correspondents the ability to stream reports from wherever in the world they might be. NBC News, meanwhile, is in the midst of what Nick Ascheim, senior vice president of NBC News Digital, calls “an experimental phase” as it gears up to launch a streaming outlet that will stand apart from its MSNBC cable network. Programming, talent and business models are all up for discussion, he says, but anyone can see based on recent online job ads that the company is adding staff.  Over the summer and part of the fall, says Ascheim, NBC News will test concepts and “put it in front of audiences so we can gauge reaction.”

Both news units follow CBS, which in late 2014 launched a streaming-video hub called CBSN that offers live news reports, on-demand documentaries, and a smattering of original programs. The aftermath of the 2016 election helped bring audiences to the new outlet, says Christy Tanner, executive vice president and general manager of CBS News Digital. In the first half of 2018, she says, CBSN video starts rose 86%, compared with the first six months of the previous year. CBS declined to specify how many viewers CBSN has, but said daily streams number in “the millions.” The outlet’s average viewer is 38 – significantly younger than the typical linear couch potato. Unlike many other services, CBS’ does not require a viewer to have a cable or satellite subscription to gain access.

Success for all is not guaranteed, suggests Tanner. “I think we now have a bit of a crowded marketplace and maybe some fatigue with the melodrama of our news cycle, she says.”I think it’s just a harder time to enter the game.”

The networks are eager to chase their future viewers – and the ad dollars that follow them. The share of Americans who often get news on a mobile device – 58% – has nearly tripled since 2013, according to a report issued this week by Pew Research. In that year, only 21% of U.S. citizens did. That sharp rise has been fueled by an embrace of the technology by older Americans and lower-income families, according to the study, signaling that the concept of getting information by smartphone has moved well beyond the early-adopter stage. Meanwhile, ad spending on mobile is seen growing 29%, to $70 billion in the United States this year, according to Magna, a media-research firm that is part of Interpublic Group. That figure is the equivalent of two-thirds of overall digital ad spending in the U.S.

New 5G technology will only accelerate the trend. CBS’ Tanner believes Madison Avenue is gearing up to spend more heavily on high-quality video that reaches consumers using smartphones, particularly as news junkies feel greater ease in watching video on a more personalized screen. “It’s going to be really important and we are going to want to monetize it and get fair value for it,” she says. “Who is to say the person rolling over in bed to watch the royal wedding on their mobile phone isn’t as valuable as the person who gets out of bed to watch it an over-the-top connected device?” She expects a new generation of headline seekers to watch a news show on a TV set, then get up to go to the kitchen where they will watch the same newscast on the screen of a broadand-connected refrigerator or listen to its audio stream on an Amazon Echo.

No one can afford not to try getting into the market for live-streamed news, executives agree. If ABC can’t figure out a way to reach a growing audience that relies more heavily smartphone alerts and passed-along video snippets than it does TV’s evening news and morning shows, then “we die?” asks Smith. “I don’t think there’s anyone in these halls that believes that younger audiences are going to turn on their TVs at an increasing rate.”

As the broadcasters jump into these new waters, however, they land in a crowded pool. Buzzfeed streams a morning show, “AM to DM,” on Twitter. Vice’s video gets a halo from being associated with HBO’s linear and streaming services. Cheddar, the financial-news oriented operation, recently acquired MTV’s campus-TV network, which shows content in common student area at universities. Bloomberg has launched a Twitter-streamed outlet called TicToc.

More is on the way. 21st Century Fox’s Fox News plans in the fourth quarter to launch Fox Nation, a subscription-based video-streaming service that is slated to feature right-leaning commentary with original shows and cameos by personalities such as Sean Hannity and Tomi Lahren. A homepage for the new outlet – said to be aimed at the Fox News ‘superfan” – features a picture of a smiling Lahren. People who sign up won’t need a Fox News cable subscription.

CNN has also tilled this ground, offering live feeds of important moments like an erupting volcano; rolling out original digital programming such as “Mostly Human,” a series led by Laurie Segall that probes tech trends, or “American Woman,” a series in which anchor Brooke Baldwin interviews women who have shattered conventions. And the AT&T-owned news unit in 2015 launched Great Big Story, a separate business that features hundreds of documentary-style reports examining everything from the history of video games to Tara Strong, a popular voice actress who gives life to many famous animated characters.

Chris Berend, CNN’s senor vice president of digital video, thinks the old-school companies may just fare better in this new video world. “You have some institutions who have been doing video for quite a long time. Obviously, we are one of those. And then you have these digital start-ups who are now becoming more mature, beginning to enter the video space and realzing how hard it is,” he says. “A lot of them are being scared off by the fact that it didn’t turn into gold right away.”

What hasn’t frightened anyone is the lack of a uniform model. No single offering looks any other. CBS is delving into series that serve various niches, such as a weekly report on events in Africa. Tanner suggests CBSN may try to work more closely with Australia’s Network Ten, which its parent company bought in late 2017.

NBC News faces an intriguing challenge. Getting into live-streamed news could be a good business opportunity. But taking viewers away from MSNBC, the cable network with ratings that have surged since the 2016 election and a recalibration of its program lineup, would not. “This needs to be different programming. It needs to be original to this platform,” says NBC News’ Ascheim. “It’s not going to be a redux of MSNBC in any way.” NBC has already found what it believes is traction from “Stay Tuned,” a show that streams daily on Snapchat.

ABC, meanwhile, sees the need for a less traditional approach. ABC News teamed up for election coverage with YouTube in 2012 and Facebook in 2016, says Smith, and executives learned what they think is an important lesson: Digital viewers crave more action, and fewer talking heads.

“Every time we cut to the studio and went back to the host, concurrent viewership dropped. Every time we went back into the field, viewing either remained steady or it increased,” says Smith. “It would go up if it looked almost less polished.” Modern news junkies, he adds, have a “disenfranchisement with 24/7 media today. If you are telling a story through the traditional lens of a host at a desk, you run the risk of turning your audience off, because they feel like you have filtered something for them. They feel like something has happened between the time the story was gathered and what they are seeing on the live stream, so just remove it. Show them what you are capturing.”

Does that mean more far-flung correspondents with a microphone and fewer star anchors? ABC expects name-brand correspondents like Martha Raddatz, Robin Roberts, George Stephanopoulos and David Muir to contribute frequently, says Smith. “There’s always a place for the world’s best journalists. This is mostly about the format,” he adds.

It’s also about changing consumer tastes, which no longer require an anchor in a suit and tie to deliver the latest info. Sometimes, it can all be delivered by a smartphone screen. Or a truck driver’s windshield. When media companies move TV news away from the TV, it’s clear a lot of old rules are bound to be broken.