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For TV News, The Question is To Stream or Not To Stream

Steve Anderson

The migration to streaming video has seemed almost de rigueur for nearly every platform out there. Television networks have raced to put their formerly-vaulted content on streaming platforms; just look at CBS and its rush to post enormous quantities of early television content on Pluto TV. One major problem persists, however, and it’s what to do with the news. Should it stream? Or should it maintain its primarily linear presence? Solving this puzzle is proving increasingly challenging, especially for major news networks.

We’ve seen the broad strokes of a movement in progress. We’ve seen linear television ratings dive as streaming rises concurrently. A Gartner study recently found that the prized 18 to 43 year old demographic is watching streaming video with increased regularity. A TiVo study found that the average household turns to nine streaming services. Meanwhile, ViacomCBS is offering vague platitudes about how streaming won’t kill traditional television, despite major evidence to the contrary.

Yet news remains in an odd sort of limbo. While we’re seeing some efforts to make streaming happen in the news department—Fox Weather is perhaps the latest entrant in that front—news is still clearly the province of the linear broadcast / cable field. A quick look at the streaming market makes that clear; if you’re looking to watch the latest episode of “Riverdale,” you can turn on The CW on a linear approach or hit Hulu Live TV. But if you want to watch “Today” on NBC, you’re watching NBC. Not even Peacock will offer it.

With advertising sales for news divisions ranging into hundreds of millions of dollars per year, it’s small wonder that broadcasters aren’t in a hurry to rock that particular boat. Yet all the evidence suggests they may have little choice. Viewers are going to streaming, and in steadily increasing numbers. By leaving news operations as a strictly linear, strictly legacy arm, broadcasters face the threat of audiences tuning out altogether and getting their news via other means.

Certainly, some local outlets are taking matters into their own hands. Some news can be watched online on a time-delayed basis, and viewers get the exact same news they would get on broadcast online. We’re already seeing sports operations move online bringing new digitally-focused features. News desks may need to act accordingly.

Yet there’s an important component here to note. Legacy broadcasters will have to keep up linear operations for some time to come. While certainly, the prized 18 to 43 year old demographic is moving to streaming, older generations are notoriously slow adopters of digital change. A Pew study from 2018 found that 58 percent of adults over 65 get their news from cable television. “Silver streamers” are growing in number and purchasing power, but there’s still a big bloc of linear viewership out there. That means ad revenue.

So to answer the rhetorical question, to stream or not to stream, the answer is oddly specific: stream. The bulk of evidence suggests that there’s little choice but to as more and more viewers make their move to streaming content. Granted, a legacy arm will have to be provided and maintained.

Streaming is tomorrow. Legacy is today. Midnight is fast approaching. This simple string of concepts makes it clear that TV news, like the rest of TV, needs to prepare for an era in which most video is viewed online.

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