In the age of mobile, TV news needs re-inventing

Posted by Prof Richard Sambrook and Sean Mcguire

This  article was originally published on The Guardian website

Earlier this year, we suggested that 24 hour news channels have had their day. This was not, as some interpreted, to predict they should all just shut. Nor was it, as some took it, an attack on any particular broadcaster. It was a call for greater innovation in continuous news broadcasting.

As consumers increasingly demand immediacy and relevance, as technology demands investment, it seems unlikely that spending upwards of £60m a year on a closed, satellite infrastructure that delivers the news – late – to 1% or 2% of the available audience will remain a sensible use of resources.

Managing the transition away from that expensive infrastructure to a low-capital digital future is the hardest task. Starting from scratch with minimal physical overheads is easier than weaning an organisation off printing presses or TV transmitters.

However, as the Reuters Institute’s Digital News report 2014 highlighted, the change in consumer behaviour, driven by the exponential rise of smartphones and tablets to access news, is already with us. The consumer is already deciding how they want their news – and a broadcast stream figures low in their preferences.

John Ryley, head of Sky News, said recently that “if (the news channel) didn’t exist, we’d need to invent it”. His argument was that the TV channel generated the content they could then exploit across multiple other platforms – and always would.

But in an age of digital interactivity it seems perverse to insist a linear channel will always be the core of what you offer.

Fixed broadband

Ericsson Consumer Labs has estimated that by 2020 fixed broadband connections will exceed 1bn homes globally; there will be more than 50bn connected devices of which 15bn will be video-enabled and reliant on mobile internet networks.

This will transform TV and open opportunities for innovation, new business models, new consumer services. There will be an expectation of permanent connectivity, cloud storage, and services freed of location, time, or platform. On-demand and time shifted viewing, it is estimated, will grow to at least 50% of consumption. Immediacy and relevance – personalisation – will become core expectations.

One of the lessons from the bruising experience of print news organisations is that adapting to new consumer expectations driven by technology is more than a matter of rearranging the desks in the newsroom or adopting a “digital-first” slogan. It takes a fundamental rethinking of processes, production and even purpose.

In other words, in confronting the reality of the task, some sacred cows have to be sacrificed. Dispense with the long treasured methods of production and focus relentlessly on what the consumer needs – which isn’t the strictures of a fixed schedule, or the choreography of the studio and satellite links. Serving the channel first, with digital platforms second, is unlikely to work for much longer.

In all areas of news, as recently identified by Kevin Delaney of Quartz, the premium is now on tight, timely information or on longer, in-depth specialism. The “middle” is dead. But of course that “middle” content is where a lot of broadcasters (and newspapers) have traditionally focused. Newsrooms are configured to deliver the 800-word article or the two-minute video package – which increasingly doesn’t work in a digital environment.

So what are the options available to channel operators? Thankfully for them, brand still matters and loyalty persists for many – which provides time to innovate. But it won’t last forever. One option is closure and reinvestment in on-demand services. However that is not – nor should be – the solution for most.

But a solution needs to be found. The American news networks continue to suffer, with declining and ageing audiences for even the most successful.

Another option is to find a new purpose and different content to appeal to a wider group. CNN’s Jeff Zucker has said while CNN will roll on the biggest stories it is seeking to develop more “informational based, educational, entertaining programs”. In other words, if news channels can’t win with breaking news, then let them offer greater depth of programming. It might however take them closer to channels like Discovery or National Geographic.

The BBC's newsroom at New Broadcasting House.
 The BBC’s newsroom at New Broadcasting House. Photograph: View Pictures/REX

Another option is impact through partisanship. It has worked for Fox News, although less well for MSNBC which set out to be the Yin to Fox’s Yang.

But these approaches are wedded to the past – a world of fixed, closed, linear broadcasting.

Clearly the future will involve some means of combining the advantages of TV news channels with the speed, flexibility and openness of the internet. A newsgathering operation which can deliver to the screen the advantages of live blogging – with speed, flexibility and transparency – with the weight and power of great visual reporting. A service focused on the story, rather than the choreography of delivery or the traditional formats of the past.

They could develop an online video stream, at lower cost than a permanent satellite broadcast. It’s a strategy which is growing the audience of CBS.Com faster than many of its competitors.

Million views a day

When, as is likely the case by 2020, the TV in the corner of the room is a screen which can take any internet-delivered service, the difference between an online video stream and a continuous broadcast channel disappears for the consumer. Not for the producer, however, who has to measure the cost of satellite and terrestrial distribution infrastructure against delivery via the internet.

This was the logic which drove the BBC to make BBC3 a web-only, iPlayer led service. It seems unlikely, as the use of on-demand media players grows, that it will be the only channel to do so. For video news content, how about an app on a mobile device or TV set that aggregates the latest packages filed by newsgathering – personalised to your taste, but with the three things that you really need to know about, ready in a bulletin whenever and wherever you want it. Not waiting for the news-wheel to turn to the top or bottom of the hour.

Broadcasters might, as al-Jazeera announced recently, integrate online and TV.AJ+, they say, is “for the generation connected to the real world” – an online network of short videos aimed at a younger audience to rival Vice News.

They can drive their online video through relentless interaction with users which has made RT (Russia Today) the most successful news channel on YouTube, clocking a million views a day.

News consumers are turning to mobile devices – for short clips or text rather than live streams – and the age profile of those wedded to their TVs continues to grow older. Which makes it odd to think a linear broadcast channel should be the heart of your news service in the digital age.

In TV news, if you didn’t already have a 24-hour channel – you’d probably invent something else.


Richard Sambrook is professor of journalism at Cardiff University and a former director of BBC News. Sean McGuire is managing director of Oliver & Ohlbaum Associates and a former head of strategy for BBC News