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Streaming Pivot Hits Critical Mass in Media Business

·8 min read

The streaming pivot that has upended the entertainment industry is reaching critical mass in the media business. And not a moment too soon for an industry that for years has been convulsed by the digital disruption and the commoditization of news content.

Strategies vary. Early entrants CBSN and Fox Nation, which launched in 2014 and 2018, respectively, have staked out opposite corners of the streaming space, with CBSN offering deeper dives on traditional news topics including climate, immigration, tech and finance and Fox Nation super-serving its highly engaged Fox News Channel audience with lifestyle and entertainment content.

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Some services — including ABC News Live, CBSN and NBC News Now and the MSNBC-branded streaming block The Choice — are available as stand-alone services as well as within larger streaming destinations including Hulu, Paramount+ and Peacock. Many are also available on myriad additional platforms including YouTube TV and Roku.

The barrier to entry is no longer a cable subscription since many of the services, including NBC News Now and CBSN, are free (and ad-supported). It’s a development that inches the video media industry toward a more holistic approach to content delivery, or at least one that seeks to further demolish the silos that once existed between broadcast, cable and online.

So subscribers of Fox Nation (which is available for $6 a month and free to active and retired military) get a Clint Eastwood film festival celebrating the 30th anniversary of Eastwood’s Dirty Harry persona, longform series on crime and uninterrupted coverage of conservative political events including CPAC and the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit. In June, the network put its top-rated primetime lineup on the service the day after it premieres on the linear channel. There’s a book imprint and in the fall, the company will launch Fox Weather, a free, ad-supported streaming weather service.

“The way we see Fox Nation sitting in this ecosystem is truly the perfect companion to the Fox News Channel,” said Fox Nation president Jason Klarman, who was among the team that launched Fox News Channel in 1996. “We’re really looking at all the different ways to build out the experience beyond the core Fox News Channel experience.”

Executives charged with launching CNNPlus, which is set to bow early next year and is the last of the major news brands to jump into the stream, have offered few details about what the subscription service will look like beyond the stated intention to kick off with eight to 12 hours of live programming daily as well as original programs led by CNN personalities, including Anderson Cooper and new hires like Kasie Hunt, who recently left NBC News and MSNBC.

In a July 19 statement announcing the service, CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker characterized the launch as “an important step” in the evolution of the industry and the service is designed to expand CNN’s audience among the growing segment of consumers without a cable subscription. Rival news executives have been privately dismissive of the announcement, which was accompanied by Zuckerian hubris, including the declaration that “nothing like this exists.”

But with the cable bundle under threat, establishing a foothold in streaming is both a hedge for a future when content is no longer delineated by its delivery system and a matter of survival in a content universe no longer tethered to appointment television. It’s why (most) executives no longer worry about antiquated notions of cannibalization imperiling the lucrative linear business.

NBC Morning News Now anchors Savannah Seller and Joe Fryer. - Credit: Courtesy of NBC News
NBC Morning News Now anchors Savannah Seller and Joe Fryer. - Credit: Courtesy of NBC News

Courtesy of NBC News

“It’s all additive,” said Janelle Rodriguez, senior vice president of editorial at NBC News and the executive in charge of NBC News Now, which averages about 40 to 50 million views each month. “We’re not trying to duplicate the ‘Today’ show or ‘Nightly News’; we’re really creating a genre in its own space.”

Rodriguez said NBC News Now has a large segment of repeat users, an audience she characterized as “news junkies.” As with linear and digital, big news events are the rising tide; NBC News Now had its biggest day on record with more than 10 million hours watched on Jan. 6, the day of the Capitol riots.

News content — with its quick hits of video and live updates — has always been well-suited to the realities of an on-demand and mobile mediascape. But the pandemic created the perfect storm to super-charge the consumer shift to streaming: a viewing public stuck at home and looking for content, a major and ongoing news event to pique usage, and the market penetration of streaming technology.

“Smart TV technology is at the point where Grandma now can press a button and get streaming content,” added Rodriguez. “It’s not early adopter type of technology the way it was even five years ago. It’s commonplace technology that’s just baked into every television set. You take all of that and the pandemic just accelerated what was already happening.”

Indeed, two-thirds of the NBC News Now audience watches on TVs, suggesting a subset of viewers are cord-cutters or cord-nevers. Even if Grandma is streaming her favorite shows, across the board streaming news service users are a generation younger than linear audiences; at CBSN, the average viewer age is about 38, while at NBC News Now it’s under 45.

NBC News executives in July revealed the addition of more than 200 new jobs as part of a streaming push that includes a major expansion of “Today”-branded digital headlined by morning hosts including Hoda Kotb and Jenna Bush Hager, while The Choice will launch a slate of shows featuring familiar MSNBC faces, including Mika Brzezinski and Nicolle Wallace. CNN is set to add about 450 jobs as part of its CNNPlus effort.

Linear is still the profit driver at news organizations; for instance, the three evening news programs on ABC, NBC and CBS were collectively watched by nearly 20 million people each week during the second quarter of 2021 (with “ABC World News Tonight” pulling in the largest audience followed by “NBC Nightly News” and the “CBS Evening News”). But it’s also true that watching a newscast at 6:30 will never re-emerge as a viable choice for what will soon be a majority of viewers. Until the industry is completely platform agnostic — from a business and content perspective — media organizations are busy creating (not simply recycling) content to fill myriad platforms.

“When people hear ’60 Minutes+,’ they might think, oh did they repurpose the Sunday stuff, do they just get the leftovers?” said Jonathan Blakely, the program’s executive producer.

The show, which was conceived for the quickly shuttered Jeffrey Katzenberg-financed venture Quibi before being picked up by Paramount+, has its own production staff and correspondent corps distinct from the CBS News Sunday flagship, which averaged nearly 9 million viewers on Sunday nights during its 53rd season on television.

“We have a younger and more diverse staff,” continued Blakely. “That differentiator to a large degree is the correspondents and their pitches and the stories they want to tell. It’s inherently in line with what a younger, more diverse audience would be interested in; those ideas and approaches to the stories are baked into our DNA.”

Nancy Grace hosts Fox Nation’s “Crime Stories.” - Credit: Courtesy of Fox News
Nancy Grace hosts Fox Nation’s “Crime Stories.” - Credit: Courtesy of Fox News

Courtesy of Fox News

Correspondent Laurie Segall has done segments on art NFTs, AR and the blockchain game Upland. But the program has also covered immigration, the mafia and climate change. And across CBS News, which, like ABC News, has never had a cable channel on which to build out its coverage and audience, a direct-to-consumer streaming service has been an opportunity to amortize news-gathering costs and showcase its talent. It’s why users saw “Evening News” anchor Norah O’Donnell co-anchoring extended coverage of the Blue Origin space launch on CBSN with CBSN anchor Anne-Marie Green.

“We think that our talent should be seen on all these platforms and we’re going to continue to do that,” said Darius Walker, svp and senior executive producer of CBSN.

The streaming universe as it exists now also dovetails with a vast social media ecosystem on which streaming programs can easily be introduced, promoted and shared.

“I’ve launched a lot of new shows on a lot of channels and networks on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Mehdi Hasan, the British journalist who has been hosting “The Mehdi Hasan Show” on Peacock since last October and more recently was named to host a weekend hour on MSNBC. “I think my [Peacock] show has had the quickest, biggest impact of anything I’ve launched.”

Compare that to the days of linear-only content when new shows took months of planning and promotion in order to reach a large enough audience to have any hope of survival.

“I spend a lot of time on Twitter and social media,” continued Hasan. “I used to laugh at my teenage daughter because she was on TikTok. And now we have a TikTok account putting out our clips and they do very well.”

Of course, in the digital world, churn is death. It’s why digital behemoths Amazon, Apple and Netflix spend far more for content than content-native services. So the future will belong to the streaming services that can create a content and delivery interface that consumers can’t live without.

“The trend here is empowerment for the consumer,” said Fox Nation’s Klarman. “And if you do not feed into that trend or you do not work with that trend, it will swamp you. We’ve seen it time and again.”

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