If a big story erupted at a random hour not too long ago, executives at big TV-news outlets would typically try to break into regularly scheduled network programming with one of the oldest tools in the box, a “special report.” Now, thanks to a widening fight among TV companies to capture streaming audiences, they have many new options.
When the U.S. exited Afghanistan earlier this year, ABC News collected considerable footage – more than was required for news shows like “World News Tonight” or “Good Morning America.” Rather than letting it all sit unwatched, production teams from “20/20” and “Nightline” worked to get a program, “Final Hours: America’s Longest War,” up on Hulu. ABC News, says Kim Godwin, who was named president of the Disney unit earlier this year, has used the sibling streaming-video hub to distribute everything from in-depth investigative projects from George Stephanopoulos to a detailed recent look at “Good Morning America” co-host Michael Strahan’s journey to space with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.
As the nation’s big media companies look to woo new viewers trying to pick their way through a dizzying number of streaming outlets, news divisions are signing up for the battle. ABC News is looking to launch streaming content related to “GMA” in 2022, says Godwin (NBC’s “Today” has already done so), and mulling new programing concepts that could appear on Disney Plus. “It’s about reaching audiences wherever they are, whenever they want and on whatever device they are on,” she says in an interview. “Whoever does that the best is going to win this war.”
A lot of journalists — and the executives who manage them — will head into a decidedly non-traditional competition in 2022, one that won’t necessarily be won with news scoops. They are rushing to produce new kinds of show formats, and relying on anchors both familiar and less so, all in a furious bid to keep a younger generation of consumers from developing new connections with digital upstarts that threaten to siphon them away. The fight is well underway: NBC News just before Christmas ran full-page ads in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal touting its still-growing NBC News Now streaming outlet. CNN, meanwhile, is expected to launch a significant marketing blitz behind its soon-to-launch CNN Plus, which will require a monthly subscription fee. NBC News’ ad tells people its streaming product is “Streaming. Free. 24/7” because it’s not behind a paywall. “We believe it serves the consumer better for us to be ubiquitous,” says Chris Berend, executive vice president of digital operations for NBCU’s news operations.
The skirmish is intensifying at a critical moment. Big media companies like Comcast and Disney are under pressure from Wall Street to show more growth in subscriptions to outlets like Peacock and Disney Plus. Meanwhile, their news operations are facing significant long-term declines in viewership, both for cable news after the heady 2020 election as well as their morning-news franchises and evening-news mainstays.
The news companies already make millions of dollars in advertising and distribution fees in each year with their cable networks and popular shows like “Today” and “60 Minutes.” But the young audiences that the entire media sector covets are finding paths to information that often don’t include traditional sources. According to a November study by Pew Research Center, 84% of U.S. adults say they sometimes or often get news from a smartphone, computer, or tablet, compared with 68% who said the same about television or 34% who expressed similar relationships with print. Meanwhile, digital upstarts like Vice, Vox and BuzzFeed have expanded formats like podcasts and immersive on-the-ground reporting without the use of traditional anchors.
“The reason everyone is pushing into streaming is that’s where the eyeballs are moving towards,” says Noah Oppenheim, president of NBC News, in an interview. “Increasingly, people are consuming video on streaming platforms, and we all want to be the news organization they seek out as their habits shift.”
None of the news outlets just flipped the switch on broadband. Most of them have been streaming video for several years. CBS launched its CBSN outlet in 2015 in a bid to vie with established cable-news networks without having to spend millions on the infrastructure those venues require. CNN tinkered for five years with Great Big Story, a site for short-form documentary programing, before scuttling it in 2020. NBC News unveiled a daily news program, “Stay Tuned,” specifically for Snapchat, in 2017. And Fox News debuted the subscription-based hub Fox Nation in 2018 with a mandate to create a “Netflix for conservatives,” but has expanded that rubric with Clint Eastwood movies and even a relaunch of the long-running series “Cops” (along with programs that take a decidedly right-leaning view on events of the day). In a recent call with investors, Fox Corp. said subscribers had increased by 40%, though it did not release totals. “We have really built out a lifestyle and entertainment component, and there are other big acquisitions we are going to announce soon, both in the movie and documentary space and also in the original content space,” says Jason Klarman, Fox Nation’s president, who notes the service is seeing an 85% conversion rate among people who try it and subsequent low churn. “I think we understand where the bull’s-eye for our audience is, and we are very focused on hitting that over and over again.”
CNN’s new entry has the potential to reshape the market. The company isn’t taking small steps. CNN has already raided top talent from NBC News and Fox News Channel, including Kasie Hunt, Chris Wallace and former “NBC Nightly News” executive producer Jenn Suozzo, to augment its staff. Detractors privately scoff that the WarnerMedia news giant is late to the game and suggest consumers may resist opening their wallets for yet another streaming service, but executives remain sanguine about the challenge. Eighteen months of market research indicates a crowd of consumers will come to the CNN service, says Andrew Morse, CNN’s chief digital officer, in an interview. The CNN Plus he describes could lure “superfans”; aficionados of long-form non-fiction programming like CNN series led by Anthony Bourdain or Lisa Ling; and subscribers to other news services who may be getting less of the news and information than they might want.
CNN, says Morse, isn’t trying to vie with NBC News Now, CBSN or any other broadband product out there. “We are not fighting the streaming wars. We are launching a direct-to-consumer global news service,” says Morse, that isn’t built to feed the base of another streaming hub owned by a parent company (Discovery Inc. is set to acquire WarnerMedia next year, and executives have yet to articulate fully how they will manage three different streaming operations: HBO Max, Discovery Plus and CNN Plus).
Nor will the new outlet attempt to serve as a sort of “CNN 2” or “CNN Headline News,” Morse vows. CNN will stock the streaming outlet with live news and lifestyle programming, and expand its coverage of business, travel, food, and popular culture. A series focused on Mexican cuisine led by Eva Longoria was recently announced. Subscribers will be able to access a large CNN archive – 100 hours of “Larry King Live,” for example – or seminal news moments anchored by Bernard Shaw. And there will be opportunities for subscribers to connect directly with anchors and experts. “It’s not just a lean-back streaming service,” Morse says.
Only one thing, however, is certain in the new world of streaming news: Nothing.
Every big news outlet vying to establish itself for streamers is pursuing a different direction. Should news be utilized to drive subscribers to a broader site, like ViacomCBS’ Paramount Plus or Disney’s Hulu? Should it feed a portfolio of streams that could wind up as ad-supported FAST (free ad-supported streaming) channels? Does it belong behind a subscription, allowing a company to curate a well-defined audience niche? How about trying a little of everything, both subscription-based and free? And how much of the content that already drives viewership on cable and broadcast can be utilized for streaming (Fox Nation runs the primetime broadcasts of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham a day after they air on Fox News Channel). “The trick now,” says Mike Bloxham, executive vice president of global media and entertainment at Magid, a TV-industry consultant, is to figure out “what way works best for the organization and the audience.”
Get ready for more streaming experiments next year. CBS News in 2022 will unveil a retooled newsgathering effort to bolster its streaming service, once known as CBSN and soon to be formally folded into the rest of the ViacomCBS unit’s operations. The result, says Neeraj Khemlani, co-president of the company’s news-and-local-stations business, will be “the premiere local-to-global streaming news platform” that will give users the broader perspective of CBS News along with the boots on the ground of regional journalists from its various local news operations. In years past, says Khemlani, who started his position earlier this year, local news, CBS News and digital news each worked along distinct paths. “You had three separate divisions, and three separate strategies,” he explains, in an interivew. No longer.
NBC News, which has this year launched a three-anchor evening schedule for its broadband service, NBC News Now, is building up new streaming-only programs it expects to be regular offerings. Chuck Todd and Kristen Welker, for example, will provide live streaming broadcasts built around big primaries and other road-to-the-midterms events next year, says Oppenheim. Asked whether NBC News might consider live-streaming its “Today” morning franchise on YouTube, Oppenheim says “nothing is off the table.” NBC already makes “NBC Nightly News” available via NBC News Now after its linear debut. The company values its relationships with local affiliates, he says, and “we think it’s all complementary,” with streaming viewers more likely to consume more news content on broadcast and cable.
MSNBC is working on new content for “The Choice,” a streaming channel that is part of Peacock. Nicolle Wallace will use the venue for deeper dives and longer interviews than might be possible on her MSNBC show, says Rashida Jones, the network’s president, in an interview. Other anchors are likely to test similar efforts, she says, noting that “we’ve got a lot of things in production.”
And the right-wing news outlet Newsmax is already at work on “Newsmax 2,” says Christopher Ruddy, the company’s CEO, in an interivew. He describes a free streaming counterpart to its opinion-heavy cable network that will rely more on “straight news” reporting and weather and that could be ready by late 2022 or in 2023. “The real growth, I think, that’s taking place are these FAST channels and free channels that are proliferating on Amazon Fire and Pluto and Xumo and Roku,” the executive says.
To fuel all this new programming, however, the media companies need more people. Both CNN and NBC News have this year trumpeted their desire to hire new employees. In some cases, they have made prominent raids on rivals. NBC lured Tom Llamas, one of ABC News’ top anchors, to its side earlier this year, putting him at the center of its new streaming lineup for NBC News Now. Though NBC News has lost prominent people to CNN, Oppenheim says, “We have managed to attract all the people we’ve wanted to, and we have managed to retain all the people we’ve wanted to.” Still, the expectation among executives is that some people are bound to be poached. “We are in a dogfight for talent,” says ABC News’ Godwin.
The news companies are also pushing boundaries. The streamers aren’t built on the decades of old TV-network infrastructure that requires short segments and mandates a specific number of commercial breaks. That gives the news outlets the chance to offer in-depth reporting and longer discussions about topics. Already, executives think primetime for streaming is early evening, says Oppenheim, noting that research suggests viewers want to use later hours to watch entertainment fare.
In some cases, the streamers can even offer other types of programming. Local stations owned by ViacomCBS, for example, can use streaming to stay with important stories longer, perhaps, than their national counterparts – like the mopping up from a disastrous storm. WBZ, a Boston station owned by the company, has even streamed pivotal high-school championship sports matches, says Wendy McMahon, co-president of the company’s news and stations unit, in an interivew. “That’s not in the traditional vertical of news and information, but it’s a part of our commitment to our community,” she says.
The time to experiment is now, says Bloxham, the consultant, ahead of the 2022 midterm elections and the start of campaigning for the 2024 presidential election. There won’t be enough room for all the streaming options to lead, he says. “Some will rise to the top and carry the bulk of audience, and others will be secondary in nature.”
News companies must quickly map out a plan. The next few months will no doubt feature more big programming swings and glitzy new hires. None of that, however, will erase the fact that the news companies are making a big leap into tricky new territory. Chances are there will be some failures and retrenchments. If this is war, even the streaming kind, there are bound to be casualties.