If TV news legends Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley were alive and still reporting today, you’d probably be watching them on a broadcast channel.
Live news and sports keep a sizable number of viewers tuned in to traditional television. But the audience’s migration to online video has prompted the “Big Three” broadcast networks’ news divisions to delve into the 24-hour news business through free, ad-supported channels that can be accessed on televisions and mobile devices connected to the Internet. .
Walt Disney Co.’s ABC, Paramount Global’s CBS and Comcast’s NBC have increased their investment in their services, giving viewers an anytime destination for their reporting without a pay TV subscription.
The channels — NBC News Now, ABC News Live and CBS News Streaming — launched over the past decade without much fanfare. But they have built audiences in silence, and all the presidents of the news divisions say their services are profitable. Each offers a combination of replays of network TV news broadcasts and original live reports and documentaries.
The networks have committed their big-name personalities to daily live shows on the networks, including NBC’s Chuck Todd, Kate Snow and Hallie Jackson; ABC’s Linsey Davis; and CBS’s John Dickerson, a sign that they know where viewers are going.
“In general, all reporters want their stories to be seen by as many people as possible,” said Neeraj Khemlani, CBS president and co-head of news and stations. “People feel like they want to be a part of that future.”
Network executives say they are seeing steady growth in their streaming audiences, especially on election nights and after major news events like the death of Queen Elizabeth II or Hurricane Ian, which devastated parts of Florida in late of September.
“The growth trajectory suggests it’s going to be a phenomenal business in the coming months and years,” said NBC News President Noah Oppenheim, whose network added 200 positions last year to build out the division’s broadcast operation. “We’ve been able to monetize demand from advertisers because we can provide care.”
NBC News says its service is averaging 34 million hours of streaming per month in 2022, up 55% from last year, according to data from Comscore and other sources. ABC News said ABC News Live had 41 million broadcast hours in September, up 73% from last year.
CBS News Streaming added original prime-time shows in January, using big-name hosts like Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King, and has seen its viewership grow by 55% as a result. CBS also added full-time local news broadcast channels using content from its stations in 13 markets, including KCBS in Los Angeles.
Viewers will get a taste of what the broadcast channels have to offer Tuesday when they handle the 2022 midterm elections. Each will air their primetime television coverage beginning at 5 p.m. Polls begin to close across the country. But they will air earlier for the broadcast audience and will likely provide continuous reporting for the rest of the week, as many races for governor, Senate and Congress are likely to be contested.
Broadcast television news divisions have been trying to crack the broadcast business since the days of dial-up modems, with experiments in online programming going back two decades. They formed partnerships with various digital companies like Microsoft and Yahoo and made the content available on social networking sites like Facebook and YouTube.
Some of the projects became popular, such as “Stay Tuned,” a youth-oriented newscast that NBC News produces for the Snapchat social media app.
But the move to full-time broadcast news channels is now seen as necessary if broadcast news is to survive after the generation that grew up with it leaves this deadly coil.
“If we’re just trying to go after younger viewers with traditional media, we’re leaving them behind,” said Janelle Rodriguez, senior vice president of editorial for NBC News.
Nielsen data shows that the average age of the audience watching nightly newscasts, a network staple since the 1950s that still draws nearly 20 million viewers a night, is over 65. That’s why viewers see so many commercials for pharmaceuticals on broadcasts.
“I have daughters who are in their 20s and they don’t watch our programming on linear TV and I don’t think they ever will,” said ABC News president Kim Godwin. “They are well informed and get their news from a variety of broadcast, digital and social media channels.”
In previous efforts to tap into the digital audience, networks have experimented with more informal presentations of news, believing it would appeal to younger viewers. But the TV landscape has changed so dramatically that broadcast news channels don’t need to please the TikTok crowd. The average age for broadcast news viewers is up to 25 years younger than the traditional television news audience.
“When we talk about a younger audience, we talk about people in their 30s and 40s,” Rodríguez said. “People who pay taxes. They vote more. They may be more connected to what’s going on in the world, but they’re still young enough that their habits have changed.”
Broadcast networks are much like conventional TV news, with anchors at a desk covering a wide range of topics. There is no partisan political commentary, as executives believe their services are an alternative to cable news channels, where opinion anchors draw the largest audiences on conservative-leaning Fox News and MSNBC, the progressive outlet of NBCUniversal.
“It’s a straightforward, old-school approach to giving people insight into what’s going on around them,” Oppenheim said. “The core brand of NBC News has always adhered to a direct and unbiased approach to journalism, and now we have a platform to showcase that.”
Todd, political director of NBC News and moderator of NBC’s Sunday roundtable show “Meet the Press,” was one of the first participants in the division’s broadcast effort when it launched three years ago. He welcomed the opportunity earlier this year to move MSNBC’s daily version of “Meet the Press” to broadcast.
“What’s exciting about news right now is that we have an audience that comes first for news and information and not necessarily an audience driven by jersey color first,” Todd said. “It’s been great to book.”
Each of the channels has a nightly prime-time newscast: Davis on ABC News Live, Dickerson on CBS News Streaming, and Tom Llamas on NBC News Now. Llamas said he has been able to get all the resources from NBC News to contribute to his “Top Story” show. He also traveled to host his show from hotspots like Ukraine.
“For broadcast to work, it can’t be a cheap product,” Llamas said in a recent interview in his office at NBC headquarters in New York. “I don’t want people to watch the show and say it’s a good broadcast show. I want them to say it’s a great news show. It’s as good as ‘NBC Nightly News’ and ‘Today’ or whatever else is available.” . .”
Davis said having a full hour each night allows him to dig into the stories. “Hopefully we’re providing nuance that can’t be provided in a 22-minute evening news,” she said.
Godwin noted that ABC News Live has become the first stop for breaking news. The era of waiting to host a scoop on a scheduled broadcast show is over.
“The model of the past was: wait for ‘World News Tonight’ or ‘Good Morning America’ or whatever the next show is,” he said. “Now there is nothing to hold.”
Cable news is expected to enter the direct-to-consumer broadcast business at some point. But their parent companies want to avoid disrupting the substantial revenue the networks earn from pay-TV operators.
Fox News currently has Fox Nation, a subscription service that offers documentaries, movies and reruns of its prime-time talk shows, but not live news. Fox Corporation executives said Fox Nation could at some point serve as a way to distribute Fox News Channel if the shrinking universe of pay-TV customers is no longer viable.
CNN abandoned a plan for a direct-to-consumer broadcast channel service when new parent Warner Bros. Discovery took over. CNN insiders believe the network will eventually be part of a larger streaming service from the merged company.