What Does the Future Hold for Broadcast News?

'Broadcast journalists need to learn to be platform-agnostic'
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There’s plenty of news about broadcast news—specifically the shifting, often unexpected, redirection of TV newsgathering and distribution. And it’s not just putting news onto mobile or online sites or engaging in social media.

During a Media Institute panel “Survive or Thrive: The Future of Journalism” last month, TV and media veterans assessed the outlook. They barely scratched the surface given the overwhelming desire of media companies to attract millennial age audiences (18– to 35-year-olds).

This focus comes at a time when the visions for future tactics of many TV executives have failed. For example, “user-generated content” (UGC)—once expected to play a significant role in TV newscasting—has not developed; it is unlikely to be used for anything beyond opportunistic spot coverage, according to Tom Rosentiel, executive director of The American Press Institute. The longtime media researcher and reporter said that, beyond fortuitous uploads (such as when a passerby pulls out a smartphone to capture images of a “news event”), neither stations nor would-be contributors have been organized to develop a reliable stream of UGC.

Rosentiel’s views on the how TV news incorporates new tools were reflected by others on the legacy-heavy Media Institute panel. The session coincided with Sinclair Broadcast Group’s announcement that in October it will launch a weekly investigative journalism show, “Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson,” hosted by Attkisson, one of the panelists. The former CBS-TV correspondent describes her new 30-minute Sunday morning show, which will air on Sinclair stations nationwide, as one intended to “pierce secrecy and seek accountability from government, corporations and special interests.” The show will also be available via stations’ websites.

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This year BuzzFeed has produced video interviews with President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.TIME FOR AN OVERHAUL
Scott Livingston, vice president of news for Sinclair Broadcast Group, called “Full Measure” “serious journalism dedicated to serious topics that impact us all” and a sign of Sinclair’s dedication to reporting.

Sinclair’s tactic of contract production of a high-profile investigative journalism show is a prime example of the overhaul rippling through the journalism business.

Attkisson, a part-time Sinclair employee, declines to acknowledge a political slant to her program (which is being staffed in part by other former CBS colleagues). Observers expect that “Full Measure” will bring the perspective of politically right-leaning Sinclair. If so, it will expand the role of opinionated coverage—a direction already seen on Fox News, MSNBC and other channels.

Speaking of MSNBC, an overhaul is in the works there, starting with its name, a legacy of Microsoft’s investment in NBC, which was then owned by General Electric (how times change.) In recent weeks, Comcast (the current owner of NBCUniversal) has indicated that it will rebrand the news-commentary network.

Reports surfaced that Comcast may buy or make significant investments in Vice Media, BuzzFeed News or other digital media companies that crank out substantial quantities of video reports—from controversial documentaries to fluffy pop-culture segments, largely for Web distribution.

But Vice Media is also on TV. It produces “Vice,” an independent, weekly half-hour investigative series on, of all places, HBO, and recently unveiled substantial expansion deals. Vice Media will produce a nightly half-hour news show on HBO (start date undetermined), and also will create a new documentary channel that A&E Networks expects to debut in early 2016, replacing A&E’s current H2 channel. A&E bought a 10-percent stake in Vice Media last summer.

The new Vice channel is expected to focus on lifestyle documentary content— a far leap from Vice’s current HBO shows, which are heavy on political topics such as climate change, hunger, child exploitation and battle reports from war zones.

Vice Media and its partners have definitively enunciated that their target audiences are millennials. It’s no coincidence that Vice’s original show runs directly after Bill Maher’s “Real Time” on HBO on Friday nights (Maher is credited as an executive producer of the current shows).

Vice Media has also established a multiyear deal with Verizon Communications to supply digital content for Verizon’s new mobile-first video programming service.

HBO’s decision to use Vice Media for newscasts raised eyebrows among traditionalists who questioned why HBO’s parent company Time Warner would allow outside reporters to compete with its CNN subsidiary.

HBO CEO Richard Plepler, in a CNBC interview, characterized HBO as “not so much in the daily news business; we’re in the ‘Vice’ business.” He focused on Vice’s “unique voice in... storytelling” and, inevitably acknowledged its appeal to millennials. Plepler also suggested that future HBO news plans may encompass CNN, but he offered no details.

Plepler has not discussed a key factor in the HBO-Vice Media relationship: “HBO Now.” With its cord-cutting capability to reach non-cable subscribers, HBO Now provides the network with a way to get to mobile, portable and other devices—including with timely, short, topical programming that appeals to millennials.

‘HISTORIC SHIFT’
Meanwhile, BuzzFeed, the popular social media website known for its pop culture “listicles” and quizzes, is beefing up its video news operations.

“We’re in the midst of an historic shift in the media industry where news is increasingly being distributed on social networks and consumed on social devices; we believe BuzzFeed can [become] a preeminent media company,” said Chris Dixon, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, the venture capital firm that recently invested an additional $50 million into BuzzFeed.

BuzzFeed’s flirtation with NBCUniversal or other traditional media outlets provides cross-platform options as well as bringing in millennial viewers. This year BuzzFeed has produced video interviews with President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron. The Cameron interview was the first international edition of BuzzFeed News. The online channel has also interviewed House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and entertainers such as Sir Ian McKellen, Sir Patrick Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld.

The Obama interview was tied to a BuzzFeed Motion Pictures production that was distributed on Facebook. BuzzFeed invited its social media audience to submit questions for the President.

BuzzFeed is also beefing up its data science capabilities, which could be used in the emerging data-driven journalism sector. The company acquired Torando Labs, a data engineering company, in late 2014.

A BuzzFeed spokeswoman insisted to me in July, that there is “no news to report yet on our plans around TV, but will keep you posted.” The operative word appears to be “yet.”

Admittedly, these activities at Vice Media, BuzzFeed and the “nonfiction” producers focus heavily on documentaries and soft news—not the timely, deadline spot reports that are the core of local and traditional network TV newscasts. Yet, the changing definition of “news” and the interests of millennials may well affect what broadcast networks and stations—and millennial-obsessed advertisers—consider to be “news.”

John Ford, a long-time Discovery, National Geographic and ION top executive, offered this perspective from his new role as general manager of the year-old Nonfiction Producers Association. Ford is also head of programming at Justice Network TV, a digital network carried on many Tegna TV channels (the new name for the former Gannett Co. spinoff that operates TV stations and digital properties).

“Nonfiction programs will change over time,” Ford told me, “Everyone is fearful that 25- to 34-year-olds aren’t going to be watching TV. They watch differently.” He emphasized that millennials watch conventional TV, but on their own terms, such as on-demand.

The challenge to nonfiction producers is finding the right mix of stories/topics, production values and millennial appeal— along with advertiser support, Ford said. He acknowledged that “there are a lot of gray areas” right now in delineating reality, documentary and information content.

Barbara Cochran, moderator of the Media Institute “Future of Journalism” event last month put it in context. Cochran, a Washington broadcast news executive at CBS-TV, NBC-TV and NPR, and now director of the University of Missouri’s Washington Journalism Program, characterized the “convergence concentration, or multimedia journalism.”

“Broadcast journalists need to learn to be platform-agnostic,” Cochran said in an interview after the Media Institute event. “This means understanding what storytelling techniques work for each platform and being reasonably adept at all.” She also cited the value of “understanding how to harness data for storytelling and infographics”— skills that tie closely to social media.

Cochran’s summary reflects the shift likely to reshape TV news in the years ahead.

“The lines that used to sharply delineate one medium from another have become so fuzzy as to be non-existent,” she said.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC, a research and consulting firm. He can be reached at www.ArlenCom.com.