A huge shift is coming to television news. Aimed at younger viewers, the change will first be felt in the 2020 campaign, and will grow along with its audience to dominate election coverage in years to come.
Live streaming internet services will reorder who watches news, how they watch it, and when.
Several weeks ago, NBC News launched its free streaming service, joining ABC and CBS among the major news players moving resources into live web-only programming. More will follow, as electronic journalism rushes to find new audiences.
To appreciate the motives driving this transition, understand first where TV news now resides. According to ratings data, the average viewer of CNN is 60 years old; on Fox and MSNBC, that viewer is 65. Similar demographics, grim over the long-term, apply to major network evening newscasts.
That means whole generations of audience are not even bothering with what many see as the most influential programs in news media. Where those people have gone is no mystery: A study recently published by the research firm eMarketer predicts that, this year, Americans for the first time ever will spend more hours on smartphones and tablets than watching traditional television.
Enter streaming news services. Their programming is designed for the mobile audience: Frames are not filled with busy CNN-like graphics that could overwhelm a small screen; instead, the focus is on medium shots of newscasters talking directly to the camera — and the viewer. The emphasis is on simple, direct visuals that can be absorbed in a glance, as you walk across the street or check your phone on the Metro.
I was at CBS when their live streaming service, CBSN, was launched in 2014. (I also helped lead the group that created a similar CBS web channel last year for live entertainment news.) Research showed that younger viewers were turned off by the partisanship and artificial intensity on cable and were looking for reliable news outlets that spoke to them. CBS hired anchors with a low-key conversational presence, gave the production a less glossy, more “authentic” feel, and focused on covering politics down the middle.
The service struggled to attract an audience at first — but then the 2016 campaign kicked into high gear. Like other news organizations, CBSN heavily covered the less-than-traditional candidacy of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpCapitol fencing starts coming down after 'Justice for J6' rally Netanyahu suggests Biden fell asleep in meeting with Israeli PM Aides try to keep Biden away from unscripted events or long interviews, book claims MORE. But unlike other outlets, the streaming channel got younger audiences to tune in, and stay tuned in. By the end of last year, the service was attracting one million video streams a day — small compared to cable, but significant. More importantly to CBS, and to anyone involved in political campaigns, the average age of a CBSN viewer is 37. That is positively teenybopper by traditional television news standards.
Other media companies have taken note. Comcast quickly ramped up plans for an NBC channel, and cable operator Altice just closed its $200 million purchase of Cheddar, an upstart financial news streaming service aimed at younger viewers. Altice looks to widen the outfit’s focus to include more political coverage.
Local news also is jumping into the stream with both feet. CBS has launched live web channels affiliated with stations it owns in New York and Los Angeles, and it has plans to bring more local services online throughout next year. The E.W. Scripps station group started a similar channel tied to its Tampa ABC affiliate, WFTS — and is putting more resources into Newsy, the internet service it purchased in 2014.
Most telling: 800-pound gorilla Amazon is developing a free video news app tied to Fire TV and its Alexa video gadgets. The company reportedly hopes to make content deals with networks and cable channels to feed this new category. Apple won’t be far behind.
All these businesses can read the demographics: The oldest edge of the millennial generation is in its late 30s — what is now the sweet spot for CBSN’s streaming news content. That generation and the ones to follow are the media consumers making mobile dominant, choosing to watch live news transmitted from a container they can take anywhere. That won’t change.
What will change is how candidates and campaigns shift tactics to reach those viewers. As I’ve written before, the transformation of TV news is not complete — and no media format can be ignored — but we are getting much closer to the next big thing. The 2020 campaign will help push that into clearer focus.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and has worked for ABC News and as a reporter or essayist for such publications as Rolling Stone magazine, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Village Voice. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.