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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

OTT disrupted cable television and film. Is the news next?

March 11, 2021 | By Charlotte Ricca – Independent Media Reporter @Charlotte_Ricca

The decline of cable TV is not news. Ever since streaming services offered consumers entire seasons of their favorite shows – affordably, on demand, and ad free – cable has been losing subscribers.

The number of pay-TV households fell from its peak of 105 million in 2010, to approximately 77.6 million last year. And this number is predicted to drop to 63.4 million by 2024. Meanwhile, the numbers of subscribers to the largest U.S. streaming platforms went up 50% in 2019 from the previous year.

There is no doubt Covid-19 boosted streaming figures, as millions of viewers spent their lockdown binge-watching the latest Netflix recommendation. However, cable was in decline long before the pandemic, with new, younger audiences favoring a “buffet style” viewing experience. In fact, more than half of 18 to 29 year-olds who pay for a TV bundle say they stream more often than watch cable.

Broadcast news

What is really interesting, amidst all this change, is that cable news continues to make a killing. In January 2021 CNN recorded its highest viewing figures in its 40-year history, beating both Fox News and MSNBC in total viewers. However, Fox News remains the most-watched cable news network in the U.S. And it took in a whopping $12.3 billion in 2020.

“The news environment of the past four years, with Trump in the White House, has given a life extension to cable news,” says Mosheh Oinounou, an Emmy award-winning journalist who went on to launch CBSN, and is now a consultant for media organizations. “More recently, Covid and major political events, such as the storming of the Capitol, have seen record revenue and record ratings for cable.”

On the flipside, news is under-represented in the booming premium OTT arena, particularly that of local markets. Given the habits and preference of younger audiences, it might be time to take another look at the local news. 

Streaming news still a rarity

While news is still a rarity in the streaming space, things are starting to change. This month, ViacomCBS launched Paramount Plus, which will incorporate CBSN, as well as livestreams of local CBS affiliates. Fox Entertainment’s streaming service Tubi launched News on Tubi in October 2020. It recently added nearly 80 stations, with 24-hour live news feeds. Amazon Prime is also looking to get in on the news game, adding live and on-demand local news to Fire TV.

ViacomCBS already has a head start in streaming news, as CBSN was the first streaming news service to launch in the United States in 2014. And the company continues to make news part of its OTT strategy. Christy Tanner, EVP and GM at ViacomCBS, believes their “marriage of journalism and technology” differentiates them in the streaming wars.

“It baffles me that news is not a bigger part of streaming services. It’s such an incredible opportunity to reach a highly engaged audience,” says Tanner.

“News has been a really important driver of growth within CBS and now ViacomCBS. And that is the reason it is one of the three pillars of Paramount Plus. We know that news users are loyal. They come back frequently, and they stay for a long time. Now we are expanding on this knowledge to improve our news offering within our streaming services.”

However, creating live news, 24/7, is not without its challenges. There are issues around the nature of news content and the digital development resources required. This could be why few providers offer it as part of their streaming packages.

“Entertainment and news are very different,” says Tanner. “News is a real commitment. And you have to be prepared for what comes with that. Also, providers don’t see the financial opportunities they are missing. They see news as a loss leader or break-even proposition – but what we’ve done is proof.”

Oinounou agrees that some major streaming companies may be reluctant to “get too deep into news game” because of the constant need to feed the news monster with fresh content. “Media companies want evergreen content. But news is ephemeral, it’s only relevant for couple of hours, which is a real challenge,” he says.

Falling off a cliff

However, Oinounou is less convinced by the financial opportunities of streaming news, when compared to the figures cable news commands. Digital news revenue is largely ad-based while cable news relies on subscription and massive advertising income, both of which are hard to replicate online.

“There is revenue there, but not on the same scale as broadcast,” he states. “Streaming services need to ask how they can grow revenue in order to compensate for the cliff they are about to go off, in terms of cable subscriptions. We know that people will pay for sport and entertainment online. But it’s not yet been proven as a revenue source for news.

“We saw this evolution in print. News was free online. But then classified revenue fell through the floor and print subscriptions collapsed, so newspapers realized they had to start charging and put up a paywall.”

It’s only in recent years that news titles have started to generate significant subscription revenue. That said, these tend to be larger national titles or conglomerations of local news brands that have greater resources than most local brands.

However, the trend offers proof that people will pay for a quality product and a good digital experience. Therefore, it seems likely that broadcast news producers are heading in the same direction. But the question is, who goes first? Which company will be brave enough to put digital news behind a paywall?

Fox Nation is one example of how a news subscription model can work. They offer additional content on interesting topics with big names and personalities as a draw. WarnerMedia has also floated the idea of launching a similar streaming channel, with a CNN-based subscription service.

“OTT live streams need to do the same thing, by offering either exclusive content or access, which will add value and persuade customers to pay an extra fee,” says Oinounou. “They also need to make sure content is authentic to the platform. Consumers on new devices have different needs and digital news is more interactive. So content has to be adapted to the streaming space.”

A new business model

Along with great content, creating a successful streaming news channel is also about having the right technology to ensure it’s available on all platforms. This is something Tanner prides herself on. “CBSN’s strength is to enable the viewer to find our news wherever they are,” she says. “The channel is available on more than 20 devices, services and platforms.”

Oinounou agrees if news providers don’t move quickly to adapt to streaming technology and get on all new and emerging platforms “you are going to be left behind”.

Creating a good product is not just about attracting subscribers. It’s also about retaining them. And a key to reducing churn, is to reduce user fatigue and financial outgoings, which are often associated with too many streaming services. One solution is to bundle streaming content, in the same way as cable TV, where consumers pay one fee and have access to all the entertainment, sport, and news they want.

Bundling their own streaming services is a no-brainer for brands. However, given the proliferation of offerings on the market, partnering with other streaming companies could be the service consumers really want. We have already seen this happen with ViacomCBS, who partnered up with Apple TV+ last year.

“There is a lot of experimentation happening right now with all major companies trying to figure out a new business model for news,” said Oinounou. “But media executives are still focused on where the money is, and that’s not in digital.”

However, with the likes of Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei predicting the death of cable TV, the question is not “if” broadcast news will be streamed, it is a matter of how and when. What media executives need to focus on now, is how to make the new model match the traditional pay-TV bundle.

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