Broadcast TV's News War Expands to More Digital Fronts

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NBC is joining a crowded over-the-top field, where broadcast and cable stalwarts compete in a landscape without built-in viewers.

There's no guarantee that the future of TV will be mostly online, but the major broadcast news outlets are preparing for that possibility.

The latest is NBC News, which is readying an over-the-top streaming service targeted at a younger audience and will begin experimenting with online shows this summer. News chairman Andrew Lack has said the service — which is described in job postings as an "Authentic. Voicy. Unexpected" offering — is "important" for the company and will have the resources to succeed.

Meanwhile, Christy Tanner, who runs digital for CBS News, says the majority of people who watch the network's CBSN streaming service don't watch the linear channel. CBSN, which launched in 2014, drew more than 280 million live streams in 2017 from a predominantly young audience — the average viewer was 38.

"CBS as a whole is prepared to deliver its content to mass-market consumers wherever they are and whatever their technology habits are," Tanner says. This spring, ABC News launched an offering on The Roku Channel, ABC News Live, that aims to "refresh" and re-invent the traditional 24-hour TV news experience.

"We're not doing this for the sake of doing it," says Colby Smith, senior vp content and partnerships at ABC News. "We're doing this because we think there is an unmet audience need, particularly with young news consumers who are turned off by endless punditry and talking heads."

Cable news has also played in the OTT space. MSNBC, which had a median viewer age of 65 last year, launched and then phased out a streaming service called Shift, while Fox News, which also had a median viewer age of 65, is gearing up to launch paid service Fox Nation. Fox News has not yet announced a price point for the product.

The big three cable networks, including rival CNN, offer a digital stream of the linear feed along with digital-only reportage and content.

But some in the industry are skeptical that broadcast news can get away from the anchor-driven formula. "I have not yet seen signs of innovation," industry analyst Andrew Tyndall says of the early efforts. "They look more like repurposed 24-hour TV news content."

Christopher Balfe, who once ran Glenn Beck's streaming platform TheBlaze, says that OTT news services "can only work right now because of the costs being borne by their cable-funded siblings, which have much larger audiences and dual revenue streams" in advertising and license fees.

This story first appeared in the June 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.