Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly were journalism visionaries whose moves at CBS in the 1950s continue to define that company’s news division. Yet even they might be surprised to see where some of their ideas are heading.
CBS News is set to revive two landmark programs created under the auspices of one or both of those broadcasters, “Person to Person” and “CBS Reports,” but retooled for the streaming era. Norah O’Donnell will launch a new “Person to Person” series of one-on-one interviews with newsmakers and people of interest, while Gayle King is set to kick off a new series of “CBS Reports” documentaries and special reports on February 25 with a deep dive into the death of Trayvon Martin. Both series will run on the CBS News Steaming Network, part of a large-scale overhaul and expansion of the broadband news hub once known as CBSN that initially debuted in 2014.
“Streaming is an iterative process,” says Neeraj Khemlani, co-president of ViacomCBS’ news and stations unit, in an interview, “You’ve got to keep investing.”
ViacomCBS is rolling out a reworked streaming outlet that will feature not only many of the journalists known for linear reports on CBS, but also boast thousands of hours of reporting from CBS local stations in major markets ranging from New York to Miami to Detroit. The company has also built a new New York studio for streaming live national news segments. CBS News loads new firepower for streaming as the media sector starts to battle in earnest for news aficionados and information seekers who now won’t wait to watch something unfold on traditional TV, but instead expect details with the click of a smartphone.
Approximately 84% of U.S. adults get at least some news from a smartphone, computer or tablet, according to an October 2021 study from Pew Research. About 51% do so often. The group of people getting news from such devices “continues to outpace those who get news from television,” Pew found.
“We simply have to meet audiences where they are,” says Wendy McMahon, co-president of the news and stations business, in an interview.
Rivals are trying to do so as well. WarnerMedia’s CNN expects to launch a new subscription-based outlet, CNN Plus, in weeks to come, and NBCUniversal, which already features channels devoted to news from NBC News, MSNBC and “Today,” recently announced that its Peacock streaming hub would incorporate streams from the company’s local stations in Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Miami, with streams from others to be added in months to come. NBC News and Disney’s ABC have a regular evening lineup of bespoke shows for their streaming venues and Fox Corp.’s Fox News Media has launched both Fox Weather, a streaming service that puts local weather detail, granular data and national reports all in a single app, and the subscription-based Fox Nation.
CBS, however, was first. As originally conceived, the broadband operation was a bid by the company to build a ready news infrastructure without the investment required of a cable network. CBSN was largely populated by a regular “wheel” of news content, though since its launch the company has added a bespoke morning program and the political-news program “Red & Blue.” And while CBSN showed stories from the CBS morning program or “CBS Evening News,” it was largely regarded as a separate venture from the mainstay CBS News operation.
No longer. In addition to O’Donnell, CBS News correspondents Tony Dokoupil, Michelle Miller and Steve Hartman are among those who will begin anchoring programs on the streaming service. Tracy Smith and Lee Cowan, best known from “CBS Sunday Morning,” will lead “Here Comes The Sun,” a new half-hour weekly series that will showcase top moments from the Sunday A.M. mainstay. Doukoupil will anchor “The Uplift,” which will spotlight inspirational stories. And Miller will anchor “Eye On America,” a half-hour show that examines life across the U.S. There will also be “Climate Watch” segments from CBS News staffers like Ben Tracy, while Hartman will lead a streaming edition of the popular “On The Road” segments originally launched by Charles Kuralt.
Though CBS News mainstays ranging from O’Donnell to Scott Pelley have contributed to streaming in the past, this new move ensures their work will be more sustained, not piecemeal. “There’s a sea change here,” says Khemlani. “When digital first started, it was sort of in the corner. Now everyone wants to be part of this.” Khemlani declined to comment on the status of contract talks with O’Donnell or King, both of whom come up for renewal in the next several weeks. People familiar with some of those discussions suggest they are continuing.
CBS News plans a regular evening lineup of news each weeknight for streaming audiences. At 6 p.m., users can watch “Red & Blue,” which will make expanded use of CBS News’ team of Washington correspondents and reporters. At 7 p.m., a live news hour will be anchored, on different nights, from New York, Washington or Los Angeles. The 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. hours will feature some of the new original programs as well as content from “48 Hours” and “60 Minutes.” A rebroadcast of “CBS Evening News,” anchored by O’Donnell, follows at 10 p.m.
While national news gets many headlines, the company believes the growing amount of programing from its local stations is going to play a large role in keeping viewers engaged. When all is said and done, says McMahon, WWJ in Detroit will produce more hours for streaming than it will for linear broadcast. The company expects to have 14 different local streams accounting for 45,000 hours of news, weather and community programming by the end of 2022. In some cases, says McMahon, that could even include the broadcast of local high-school sports matches and other programming designed to serve specific cities and communities.
Executives believe the stations will provide deeper coverage not only of events in their local vicinity, but also of news that grows to become part of the national cycle. “Every story is a local story, “says McMahon. “It’s a saying because there’s truth in it.” And coverage of important trials and natural disasters, no matter the locale, can quickly become news of national interest, adding to the number of minutes viewed.
“This user experience that we have in place does a brilliant and really intuitive job of alerting you to content, to breaking news, to big stories as they happen, and enables you to shift seamlessly from one channel to another, from national to local and back again,” says McMahon.
Users of the retooled streaming network may also get a chance to unearth older material. There will also be a chance for “pop-up channels” around specific events says Khemlani, that can be created to feature work from the CBS News archives. Such a venture might feature interviews and news segments from the company’s decades of newsgathering, and old video, the executive says, is “being digitized at a rapid pace.”