NBC News often delivers seismic headlines and attention-grabbing special reports. Now it wants to offer something equally as compelling to Madison Avenue.
The NBCUniversal news operation is launching NBC News Custom Productions, an editorial unit devoted to finding ways to pair advertisers with a growing array of content options made for streaming-video outlets. “The worlds of TV and digital are converging,” says Chris Berend, executive vice president of digital for NBC News, in an interview. “We have been working really closely with [ad-sales] teams to develop more capabilities to deliver more value for advertisers, particularly around news.”
NBC News’ launch of an editorial “studio” is the latest in a series of recent efforts by media companies to find new ways to hitch big brands to advertising in news programming – not always the easiest feat. News stories can be by turns shocking, violent, or depressing. And yet, in an era when people are increasingly turning to streaming video to watch their favorite dramas and comedies, news programs are garnering some of media’s biggest regular audiences. Little wonder, then, that the networks are working to find new opportunities to draw Madison Avenue close.
CNN has established an in-house unit called Courageous that helps develop content for advertisers. Fox News Channel recently said it struck an alliance with a firm called Heve that specializes in similar concepts.
But Berend says the new NBC News operation isn’t looking to create ad messages that emulate the look and feel of its programming, but rather devise editorial concepts around mobile and streaming video that marketers might want to support. The studio aims to have “high touch conversations,” he says. NBC News recently paired General Motors Cadillac, for example, with a digital series called “Mavericks” that featured interviews between MSNBC host Ari Melber (above, pictured) and various influencers and entertainers.
NBC News‘ effort comes after it has worked quickly over the last few months to develop a portfolio of services tailored for mobile devices and connected TVs. NBC News Now, which launched last year, is seen as a vehicle for general-news audiences, while mobile content from MSNBC is viewed as interesting to politics junkies. NBCUniversal has announced its intent to launch NBC Sky World News this summer, a bid to cater to an audience interested in international news. NBC News is also exploring the idea of launching a streaming-video option around its venerable “Today” show aimed at people interested in lifestyle news, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Some of NBC News’ video products are expected to be included in Peacock, the streaming-video hub its parent company is launching in April. During a recent demonstration, executives showed advertisers a layout that made clicking into live news content particularly seamless.
The TV networks are also chasing ad dollars shifting to new kinds of video. Desktop digital advertising rose to nearly $37.5 billion in 2018, up from about $30.4 billion in 2011, according to data from Pew Research Center. Meanwhile, mobile advertising has soared, up to nearly $71.2 billion in 2018, compared with more than $1.6 billion in 2011.
“We have really begun to pivot our digital organization to really focus on what we call the connected news consumer,” says Berend, describing a set of “news consumers who pick up their phone first and likely watch television through some sort of connected TV device like Apple TV or Roku. They likely don’t have a cable box and they likely haven’t watched broadcast other than big events in quite some time.” He adds: “There are now, at this point, probably three generations who are growing up that way.”
Berend, who joined NBC News in July, has a robust history of devising new non-fiction concepts for digital audiences. At CNN, he led oversight of digital-video efforts as well as content strategy for new venues like connected TVs and mobile distribution. He is a co-founder of Great Big Story, a CNN-owned video hub for younger digital-native news aficionados. He has worked as an executive at ESPN and Bloomberg as well as a journalist for Esquire.
The executive cautions NBC News isn’t looking to mask advertising as news. “We are absolutely going to bring our talent and our portfolio to bear on this, but we aren’t going to twist our journalism standards,” Berend says. Some anchors whose duties pertain to breaking news coverage would likely not take part in such initiatives.
The unit isn’t starting from scratch. “We will have some partnerships coming down the pike over the next three to six months. We can’t announce them yet, but we have lined them up through Custom Productions,” says Berend.