Why free streaming channels could be the future of broadcast TV news

Tom Llamas reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine, in March 2022.

Tom Llamas reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine, in March 2022.
(NBC News)

If TV news legends Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley were alive and still reporting today, you probably would be watching them on a streaming channel.

Live news and sports are keeping a substantial number of viewers tuned in to traditional TV. But the audience migration to online video has led the news divisions at the “Big Three” broadcast networks to get deeper into the 24-hour news business through free, ad-supported channels that can be accessed on internet-connected TV sets and mobile devices.

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Walt Disney Co.’s ABC, Paramount Global’s CBS and Comcast’s NBC have all stepped up their investment in their services, giving viewers a destination for their reporting anytime without a pay TV subscription.

The channels — NBC News Now, ABC News Live and CBS News Streaming — were launched over the last decade without much fanfare. But they have quietly built audiences, and the news divisions presidents all say their services are profitable. Each offers a mix of repeats of network TV news broadcasts and original live reporting and documentaries.

Networks have committed their big-name personalities to daily live programs on the channels, such as NBC’s Chuck Todd, Kate Snow and Hallie Jackson; ABC’s Linsey Davis; and John Dickerson of CBS — a sign that they know where the viewers are going.

“By and large every reporter wants their stories to be seen by as many people as possible,” said Neeraj Khemlani, president and co-head of news and stations for CBS. “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 such as the death of Queen Elizabeth II or Hurricane Ian, which devastated parts of Florida in late September.

“The trajectory of growth suggests it will be a phenomenal business in the months and years to come,” said NBC News President Noah Oppenheim, whose network added 200 positions last year to build up the division’s streaming operation. “We’ve been able to monetize advertiser demand because we can deliver eyeballs.”

NBC News says its service is averaging 34 million streaming hours a month in 2022, up 55% over last year, based on data from Comscore and other sources. NBC News Now reached 37 million hours in September. ABC News said ABC News Live had 41 million streaming hours in September, up 73% over last year.

CBS News Streaming added original prime-time shows in January — using big-name anchors such as Norah O’Donnell and Gayle King — and has seen its audience grow by 55% as a result. CBS has also added full-time local news streaming channels using content from its stations in 13 markets, including KCBS in Los Angeles.

ABC News Live anchor Linsey Davis.

(ABC News)

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Viewers will get a sense of what the streaming channels can offer Tuesday when they handle the 2022 midterm elections. Each will stream its prime-time network TV coverage that starts at 5 p.m. Pacific, when polls start to close across the country. But they will be on earlier for the streaming audience and will likely provide continuous reporting during the rest of the week as many gubernatorial, Senate and congressional races are likely to be contested.

Broadcast TV news divisions have been trying to figure out the streaming business since the days of dial-up modems, with online programming experiments that go back two decades. They formed partnerships with various digital companies such as Microsoft and Yahoo and made content available on social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube.

Some of the projects caught on, such as “Stay Tuned,” a youth-oriented newscast NBC News produces for social media app Snapchat.

But the move into full-time streaming news channels is now seen as necessary if broadcast news wants to survive after the generation that grew up with it leaves this mortal coil.

“If we only try to go after younger viewers with traditional news outlets, we are leaving them all behind,” said Janelle Rodriguez, senior vice president, editorial for NBC News.

Data from Nielsen shows the median age for the audience watching evening newscasts — a staple of the networks since the 1950s that still attracts nearly 20 million viewers a night — is over 65. It’s why viewers see so many commercials for pharmaceutical products on the broadcasts.

“I have daughters who are in their 20s, and they don’t watch our programming on linear television and I don’t think they ever will,” said ABC News President Kim Godwin. “They’re well informed, getting their news from a variety of streaming, digital and social media channels.”

In past efforts to tap into the digital audience, networks experimented with more informal presentations of news stories, believing that would appeal to younger viewers. But the TV landscape has altered so dramatically, the news streaming channels do not need to pander to the TikTok crowd. The median age for streaming news viewers is up to 25 years younger than the traditional TV news audience.

“When we’re talking a younger audience, we’re talking 30- to 40-year-olds,” Rodriguez said. “People who are paying taxes. They’re voting more. They may be more plugged in to what’s going on in the world, however, they are young enough that their habits have shifted.”

The streaming networks look a lot 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 hosts attract the largest audiences on conservative-leaning Fox News and NBCUniversal’s progressive outlet, MSNBC.

John Dickerson will host "CBS News Prime Time" on CBS News Streaming.

John Dickerson will host “CBS News Prime Time” on CBS News Streaming.
(Gail Schulman / CBS)

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“It’s an old-school, straight approach to giving people a sense of what’s going on around them,” Oppenheim said. “The core NBC News brand always adhered to a straight-down-the-middle, nonpartisan approach to journalism, and now we have a platform to showcase that.”

Todd, NBC News political director and moderator of NBC’s Sunday roundtable program “Meet the Press,” was an early participant in the division’s streaming effort when it launched three years ago. He welcomed the opportunity earlier this year to move the daily MSNBC version of “Meet the Press” to streaming.

“The exciting thing about news now is that we have an audience that is coming for news and information first and not necessarily an audience that’s driven by a jersey color first,” Todd said. “It’s been great for booking.”

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 the full resources of NBC News to contribute to his program “Top Story.” He also traveled to anchor his program from breaking news hot spots such as Ukraine.

“For streaming to work, it can’t be a cheap product,” Llamas said in a recent interview at his office at NBC headquarters in New York. “I don’t want people to look at the show and say it’s a good streaming show. I want them to say it’s a great news show. It’s as good as ‘NBC Nightly News’ and ‘Today’ or anything else that’s out there.”

Davis said having a full hour each night allows her to go deeper into stories. “Hopefully we’re providing the nuance that you can’t provide in a 22-minute evening newscast,” she said.

Godwin noted that ABC News Live has become the first stop for breaking stories. The era of waiting to present a scoop on a scheduled broadcast program is over.

“The model of the past was: Hold it for ‘World News Tonight’ or ‘Good Morning America’ or whatever the next show up was,” she said. “Now it’s no holding anything.”

Cable news is expected to enter the direct-to-consumer streaming business at some point. But their parent companies want to avoid disrupting the substantial revenue the networks get from pay TV operators.

Fox News currently has Fox Nation, a subscription service that offers documentaries, movies and replays of its prime-time opinion shows but no live news. Executives at Fox Corporation said at some point Fox Nation could serve as a way to distribute the Fox News Channel if the shrinking universe of pay TV customers is no longer viable.

CNN abandoned a plan for a direct-to-consumer streaming channel service when new parent Warner Bros. Discovery took over. Insiders at CNN believe the network will eventually be part of a larger streaming service from the merged company.

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