TV news via Snapchat?
Audiences for traditional formats are getting smaller and older. Here are some ways broadcast networks are trying to stay afloat
NBC News recently began production on “Stay Tuned,” a twice-daily newscast produced exclusively for users of the social media platform Snapchat.
Young anchors Gadi Schwartz and Savannah Sellers tape their two- to three-minute programs in a Rockefeller Center studio belonging to the company where such innovations as color TV were developed. But making a newscast designed for a vertical screen of a mobile device did not require a technological breakthrough.
“The camera is literally turned on its side,” said Nick Ascheim, senior vice president of digital for NBC News and MSNBC. “It sounds almost ridiculously simple, but it’s the best way to do it.”
If only resolving the other challenges facing broadcast TV news these days were that easy. Broadcast network morning show and evening news audiences are getting smaller and older. The three network evening newscasts averaged 21.2 million viewers in May, down from 22.6 million a year ago, while the 25-to-54 age group declined by 10%. The median age for a network morning news program is 59.7, up from 57.6 five years ago, according to Nielsen.
Millennials who want news are getting it online, often from sites such as BuzzFeed and Vice that target them.
Those trends have pushed the news operations of ABC, CBS and NBC into initiatives aimed at reaching those viewers on digital platforms, such as exclusive video content for social media sites and live-streaming networks for users of over-the-top TV devices.
“We are looking for ways to reach that audience that isn’t necessarily going to find us through traditional programming,” Ascheim said. “Whatever you want to label them — cord cutters, cord shavers, millennials — they are not watching nightly news and morning television in the same numbers as they have in the past.”
Network news divisions have been distributing the video they make for TV online for nearly 20 years via their own websites, through partners such as Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL, and on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. But the latest wave of activity puts a greater emphasis on original programming designed for younger viewers raised on the Internet and digital devices.
Andrew Heyward, a former CBS News president who is now a researcher at MIT Media Lab,
believes a more aggressive approach is necessary. “They are smartly trying to find the next generation of viewers rather than waiting for the next generation of viewers to find them,” he said.
Last week, ABC News announced it would produce content for ATTN, the Los Angeles-based media company that creates topical, issue-oriented videos for social media sites and reaches users with an average age of 25. Colby Smith, vice president of ABC News Digital, said ATTN will reach viewers that are even younger than what the network attracts with content it runs on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
ABC also launched “The Briefing Room,” a livestreamed show on ABCNews.com built around the daily White House press briefings which have become appointment viewing for political junkies since President Trump took office.
NBC’s “Stay Tuned” covers the major stories of the day but also gives attention to news of interest to a young adult audience (nearly half of the users of Snapchat are ages 18 to 24). In the first nine days after its launch, the program delivered two special reports to users — one on the resignation of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, the other on the suicide of Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington.
The Snapchat launch follows NBC’s formation of a production unit called Left Field, dedicated to making short news documentaries to be shown on social media platforms instead of TV. The docs will be used to beef up the offerings on NBCNews.com and the NBC News app for streaming TV devices.
NBC’s cable news channel MSNBC is available online to cable and satellite subscribers who pay to receive it. But Ascheim said the growing number of people doing without pay-TV subscriptions has NBC News weighing the idea of having its own streaming channel for “over the top” TV consumers who watch on Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire or other devices.
“As you’re thinking about what the over-the-top environment should look like, you really need to cut the cord for a month,” Ascheim said. “What you’re going to find is the first time there is a big news story you’re going to pick up your remote control and you’re going to want somebody to walk you through that story, and it’s not going to be there for you. That’s why we’re exploring it.”
CBS is already tapping into the cord-cutting audience with its streaming news channel CBSN, a free, adsupported service launched in November 2014. Spearheaded by CBS News President David Rhodes, a former executive at Fox News Channel, CBSN started out as an outlet for providing extended live breaking coverage from CBS News and re-airing segments and interviews from broadcast programs such as “CBS This Morning” and other CBSowned franchises such as “Entertainment Tonight.”
Over the last 18 months, CBS News has increased its commitment to the channel by broadening the program lineup with original documentary-style segments created primarily for the streaming audience.
The segments are featured in a short-run summer series called “CBSN: On Assignment” that began Monday night, simulcasting on the streaming channel and the CBS broadcast network where it was watched by 2.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen.
The pieces on the premiere included investigations on efforts by ISIS to indoctrinate children in Mosul, Iraq, and on how visa fraud is used to bring foreign workers into U.S. auto plants. But they were delivered in conversational tone, with CBS journalists talking to the viewers as peers rather than as experts.
“What we have found in our research is maybe the traditional notions of authority of the correspondent or the anchor don’t resonate with the younger audience,” said Christy Tanner, senior vice president and general manager for CBS News Digital. “What does resonate is going on a journey with the correspondents and learning with them as they go.”
CBSN does not release data on how many people are watching the service or its financial performance, but CBS executives recently told staff at a meeting that the operation is profitable.
The service is free, but Tanner said features could be added in the future that would generate subscriber fees. CBS announced Tuesday that the CBSN feed will be added to its CBS All Access service, which gives online users the network’s programming for $5.99 a month.
Even as CBSN seeks a younger crowd — the median age of the audience is 38 — Tanner maintains that the service benefits from its brand association with the decades-long legacy of CBS News that includes “60 Minutes” and legendary anchor Walter Cronkite.
“In the research we have done, people have said, ‘I watch CBSN because when I bought my new iPhone I went to look for a news app and I was familiar with the CBS News brand because I watched the CBS local station channel 2 in my grandmother’s living room,’ ” Tanner said. “There is still a quest for trust in our landscape.”
That landscape is growing more crowded and competitive. Cable network CNN, already a leading news source for digital and mobile users (it reportedly made $150 million in profits from its digital offerings alone in 2016), is building up its youth-oriented digital video enterprise Great Big Story. GBS has been making highly polished original short films about food (the history of instant noodles), travel and unusual human interest subjects (a tattoo artist with a prosthetic arm or Queen Elizabeth’s rehearsal double) for social media sites since 2015. With an investment of $40 million over the next two years, CNN will make Great Big Story available as a 24-hour streaming channel that will target young viewers — and look nothing like a cable news outlet.
“It’s the first time CNN has launched something without the three red and white CNN letters on it, and we did it for a reason: to attract a totally different audience with an entirely different concept,” said Andrew Morse, executive vice president and general manager of CNN Digital. He notes that millennials are already going to CNN products when there is breaking news. “GBS has a distinct audience and a distinct voice.”
NBC’S “STAY TUNED” covers the major stories of the day but also gives attention to news of interest to a young adult audience (nearly half of Snapchat users are ages 18 to 24). Above, co-anchor Gadi Schwartz tapes a program in the Rockefeller Center studio.
SAVANNAH SELLERS co-anchors “Stay Tuned,” produced for Snapchat users. The launch follows NBC’s formation of a unit dedicated to making short news documentaries to be shown on social media platforms.