Streaming Wars Send TV News Outlets Searching for New Screens

TV streaming wars have erupted in Hollywood and are wreaking  havoc on Madison Avenue. They are even making a splash in places like Gainesville, Ga.

Wesley Lowery recently visited this town in the northeastern portion of the state, part of an effort to create a report for “60 Minutes Plus,” the new streaming-news counterpart to the venerable CBS newsmagazine. Lowery, one of a handful of correspondents hired for the Paramount Plus series, focuses on the plight of health care workers amid the coronavirus pandemic. “A lot of them haven’t had much relief,” notes the journalist, who takes a few minutes to discuss his work even though he has just about 48 hours before his story is slated to go out over the digital ether.

TV counterparts such as Lesley Stahl or Bill Whitaker usually get 12 to 13 minutes to tell their stories. Lowery says he may get as many as 20 to 30. “We are at a time when, because of the pace of our news cycle, things move so quickly. For a lot of us, the news, day in and day out, can feel like noise,” he says. “At the end of the week, you want to sit down and watch something longer and more thoughtful.” On TV, those “60 Minutes” segments take up significantly more time than most reports. But at roughly half an hour, a 60 Minutes Plus report would be more like a miniature documentary.

The big media companies are betting on people like Lowery to help them stay connected to viewers who are increasingly leaving traditional TV. Executives believe news can play a major part. As more of their audiences choose streaming video to watch their favorite movies, dramas and comedies on demand, news and sports are among the few sure ways TV has to keep assembling the large, live crowds advertisers crave and distributors demand. Executives think news will help spark relationships between headline aficionados and streaming services, and hope the dynamic will help cut down on “churn” — people starting and stopping subscriptions based on programming options.

What’s more, the Netflixes and Hulus of the world have certainly ramped up competition to launch the next “Orange Is the New Black” or “The Handmaid’s Tale,” but their efforts to create time-sensitive programming — series that echo TV’s late-night crowd and feature hosts like Chelsea Handler and Sarah Silverman — haven’t fared as well.

Enter the TV news crew. Getting into streaming is “pretty critical,” says Jonathan Dunn, global leader of McKinsey’s consumer, technology and media practice. Revenue from advertising and distribution is in decline, he says, and the mainstream news outlets by and large have launched “nonthreatening, non-cannibalizing incremental products and services — a little bit of extra content to serve the super fans.”

Suddenly, a lot of new ideas are coming to the surface.

Breaking news is one of the more prominent parts of ViacomCBS’ Paramount Plus streaming service, and the offering has been designed to highlight CBSN, the livestreaming outlet that launched in 2014, says Christy Tanner, executive vice president and general manager of CBS News Digital. WarnerMedia’s CNN is expected in weeks to come to unveil a more definitive direct-to-consumer business that people familiar with the matter suggest could put some of its anchors at the helm of projects related to their direct areas of knowledge. CNN declined to make executives available for comment on any potential strategy. Meanwhile, Fox News Media’s streaming outlet, Fox Nation, has struck talent deals with Tucker Carlson and Nancy Grace, and Jason Klarman, the service’s president, says it’s looking to expand its programming, which could include original movies and series related to crime and real estate. The company has even named an executive to oversee “Tucker Carlson digital products.”

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CBSN anchors Anne Marie Green and Vladimir Duthiers Michele Crowe /CBS

Anchors are among those who stand to benefit from the digital rush. Savannah Sellers is, at 29, NBC News’ youngest anchor, but her willingness to get involved with “Stay Tuned,” a news show designed for Snapchat, and a morning program on the NBC News Now streaming service has made her as well known in some circles as colleague Savannah Guthrie. Sellers says her viewers want the news presented with more immediacy and less artifice, without voice-of-God delivery and “newsy proper” on-screen conventions. In the not-so-distant past, Sellers would have waited years to get an a.m. anchor slot, “but because we have these new platforms, we are able to say to our most promising young talent, ‘Here’s a morning show — and go for it,’” says Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News.

Both ABC News and MSNBC have added traditional linear duties to anchors — Linsey Davis and Mehdi Hasan, respectively — whose assignments primarily related to streaming. ABC News this week expanded Davis’ primetime show on ABC News Live from an hour to 90 minutes. “We have so many elements and things coming in from our newsgathering teams across the country and globe that putting it all into an hour wasn’t enough,” says Seni Tienabeso, executive producer of ABC News Live. Hallie Jackson, the NBC News senior Washington correspondent, is getting a weekly show on NBC News Now. ABC News also has plans to launch shows for Hulu and ABC News Live, including one for the latter led by Jonathan Karl.

Streaming hits may be based less on the story of the day and more on the passion and expertise individual journalists can bring to the table. “We’ve gotten past the election and inauguration, and the networks are trying to figure it all out,” says Rachel Adler, a television agent at CAA. “They have a captive audience and want to ensure they’ve created some loyalty that’s not just built on the chaos of the news cycle but on the network’s talent and programming.”

Broadcast and cable TV remain important, as do the dollars that flow from that business. Still, there’s an emphasis on digital that is more urgent than in the past. “One thing we can say with certainty is that streaming has to be part of any responsible strategy,” says Oppenheim. “It’s increasingly the center of any responsible strategy.”

Surprisingly, the rise of streaming news is helping to build a business in something for which TV was once better known — in-depth content. While digital media has sped up the pace of our lives and gave certain former U.S. presidents license to set domestic and foreign policy on Twitter, many of the most traditional purveyors of video news are using their streaming outlets to slow things down.

Rather than dishing out quick bits of information, these outlets are swinging for viewers who want more than red-versus-blue talking heads and a couple of sound bites. ABC News is using ABC News Live to cover every moment of the looming trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged in George Floyd’s death — something that simply wouldn’t be possible on the broadcast network over the course of a day. “They can follow every single second,” says Katie den Daas, executive producer of the streaming outlet. Over at “The Choice,” an offering from NBCUniversal’s Peacock that examines the news through a progressive lens, anchor Zerlina Maxwell has only five minutes of commercials per hour and takes viewers through segments that can last nearly 18 minutes. Since launching the program in October while working remotely, she has featured interviews with Black farmers as well as a 9-year-old kid doing good things amid the pandemic. “We have time to get into it,” she says. “Streaming gives you the space.”

There are good reasons why.

While TV news executives continue to look at Nielsen ratings as a barometer of success, their streaming units do not. That may change down the road, but for now, execs seem more concerned about how many users check in monthly and how many hours of content are streamed in total. “We are not making arbitrary decisions based on how long a commercial break is or how long a segment is because we are trying to beat the Nielsen clock,” says den Daas.

News outlets aren’t copying their cable and broadcast formats due to another, more basic factor: They can’t. Offering up “The Rachel Maddow Show 2,” “Fox & More Friends” or “CBS Evening News: Expanded Edition” might add unwanted wrinkles to an already complicated relationship between broadcast and cable networks and the TV stations and cable systems that distribute them. The networks collect millions of dollars each year in fees from their distributors, and duplicating the product for streaming that they send out every day might jeopardize those revenues. “It forces us to get creative and to cultivate new faces,” says Oppenheim.

Even when established anchors do a show for a digital venue, the program usually looks different from their traditional perch. Anderson Cooper hosts a streaming show for CNN called “Full Circle” that is more informal than his “Anderson Cooper 360.” The program, says Cooper, “gives us a chance to cover interesting and compelling stories that might not make an evening news broadcast. It’s a less formal format and allows us to devote significant amounts of time to certain topics or interviews.”

But another factor is pushing networks to veer away from the stuff they put on their broadcast and cable schedules. Producers and executives say streaming customers don’t always want it.

“We have seen over the course of the past five years that there is a large segment of the audience that is seeking knowledge, as opposed to opinion,” says CBS’ Tanner. “We have made a very conscious decision to not incorporate opinion into the stream.”

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Fox Nation’s Nancy Grace Courtesy of Fox

Even Fox Nation sees a chance to cultivate an audience broader than the one for Fox News, the outlet that has thrived for years on primetime programming from adamant hosts like Sean Hannity. Yes, there still are shows based on right-leaning politics. But Fox Nation will offer episodes of the new “America’s Most Wanted” from Fox Broadcasting as well as an “after-show” discussion with Grace. If Tubi is Fox Corp.’s ad-supported video outlet, think of Fox Nation as the company’s subscription option. “We know that there’s an opportunity for us to expand beyond opinion and news on the service,” says Klarman. “We have ‘Duck Dynasty’ and ‘America’s Most Wanted’ with Nancy Grace. We’ve got movies. And I think we are moving toward a lifestyle and entertainment service.”

Streaming venues are also quickly becoming a place for “insta-docs,” or short-form documentaries on trending topics and stories. CBSN has run 73 documentaries since its launch and acquired its first long-form piece in the fall. “We are looking at doing more acquisitions and producing long-form documentaries in-house,” says Tanner. ABC News found a vibrant audience for its “20/20” true-crime stories on Hulu after expanding the TV program to two hours, says Beth Hoppe, senior vice president for long form. “Those two-hour binges are the perfect length for streaming,” she says, noting the unit has also ramped up production of stand-alone pieces that give viewers greater context around recent headlines.

With more streaming comes more screen time, and, anchors and producers know, more exposure in front of audiences prone to scrutinize what they are watching. “I’m a writer. I always want to go long,” says Lowery, the “60 Minutes Plus” correspondent. Still, he cautions, “You can’t hide anything in 20 minutes. It’s all got to be good.”