Broadcast Networks’ News Streaming Services Ready For Their Midterm Moments

When broadcast networks preempt primetime programming for the midterms Tuesday, they will be joining up with their streaming channels, all of which will have been well into their daylong coverage of the vote. 

This cycle, all of the legacy networks are looking at the midterms as a key opportunity for ABC News Live, CBS News Streaming and NBC News Now, capitalizing on an expected audience uptick to try to make the channels a part of viewers’ regular news diet.

As such, all of the channels are emphasizing the integration with the broadcast part of the business, shedding the idea that streaming is the “farm team” for the big leagues. Broadcast figures will be part of the streaming coverage and vice versa, and the primetime hours will see simulcast across platforms.

Among the plans:

CBS News Streaming: Caitlin Huey-Burns and Lilia Luciano anchor a special edition of Red & Blue starting at 5 p.m. ET, followed by election-night coverage. Norah O’Donnell will anchor the broadcast and streaming simulcast starting at 8 p.m. ET, and the streaming network’s 13 local channels will provide coverage throughout. Anne-Marie Green will anchor earlier in the day starting at 7 a.m. ET. O’Donnell also anchors an election eve special on the streaming channel.

Recently CBS News Streaming relaunched its politics show Red & Blue with a new executive producer, and introduced the 7 p.m. ET Primetime with John Dickerson in September. A unique feature of the network’s overall coverage this cycle has been its following of four “influence” groups, clustered as Pressured Parents, Restoring Roe, Trump True-Believers and Young and Restless.

NBC News Now. Hallie Jackson and Tom Llamas will anchor coverage starting at 6 p.m. ET, then will join the simulcasted NBC News Decision 2022 starting at 8 p.m. ET. Throughout the cycle, Chuck Todd and Kristen Welker have anchored primary night specials on NBC News Now, including the two-hour Meet the Press: Election Special preview on November 1. The channel also has presented a number of Meet the Press Reports specials, along with a limited series anchored by Andrew Ross Sorkin. NBC News Now now has a minimum of 10 hours per day of live original content.

ABC News Live. David Muir will anchor starting at 7 p.m. ET, joined by Linsey Davis and the ABC News political team. ABC News Live will simulcast broadcast network coverage starting at 8, and Kyra Phillips will anchor updates through the night for ABC News Live and affiliate stations. Diane Macedo, Terry Moran and Kayna Whitworth will anchor coverage in the morning and throughout the day. Over the weekend, the streaming channel also has been showing Power Trip, the George Stephanopoulos series that debuted on Hulu.

“It used to be that everyone was in their own silo,” said Anthony Galloway, senior vice president of CBS News Streaming. “So digital operated different from broadcast, and there really was sort of a separation there. Now, for the first time, and we’re all excited about it, is that all of those silos have been broken down, and for the first time, we’re conceiving of, and now going to execute election coverage across, from local and national and a global audience.”

At NBC News, Janelle Rodriguez, senior vice president, editorial who oversees NBC News Now, said that “we know that we get huge sampling and a new audience whenever there is a big event like and election and the impeachment. January 6th, hurricanes, and when get that huge sampling that comes in and discovers us for the first time, we find after that every one of those events that our overall audience grows. People come in. They find us for the first time.”

Seni Tienabeso, executive director of ABC News Live, said that they took the midterms as an “opportunity to not only build our audience but inform them, in a more detailed way about the stakes.” 

“This is sort of the culmination of a very aggressive and purposeful strategy to really position ABC News Live as the place for politics with streamers.”

Alive with live

After sporting events, news is the second most popular genre of live streamed content, with more than one-third of all broadband households watching a live-streamed newscast in the prior 30 days, according to a survey from Parks Associates.

“Live sports, weather and major news events drive viewership on traditional TV, and streaming services follow the same pattern,” said Eric Sorensen, senior contributing analyst for the research firm.

The networks say that their streaming audiences run younger, which explains their investments as viewing habits shift. On free ad-supported streaming TV platforms (FAST) like Roku and Pluto, some of the streaming channels compete with other news options like Young Turks and Newsy.

“In many respects, the elections and the reporting of results may be the first time the younger generation may be seeking coverage of a live event,” said Tim Hanlon, CEO of The Vertere Group, a media industry strategic advisory and consulting firm.

Those younger viewers may not necessarily have grown up watching linear channels, but they are “aware enough to seek quality results from quality news sources. Ironically, these FAST channel incarnations of these legacy news brands may be their first encounter with these heritage brand names.”

Hanlon is not dismissing that other outlets will offer quality results, but “some of them political compromised or unabashedly colored with a hue of bias.” The broadcast network brands “sort of got their street cred from an era of when television was a scarce resource. Those brands now, interestingly enough, have a head start in standing out in a barrage of choice where the barrier of entry is not so high.”

Outside of big events like the midterms, the channels have tried to highlight some news gets. ABC News Live, for instance, featured Davis’ interview with Herschel Walker after he faced allegations that he paid for an ex-girlfriend’s abortion. 

Tienabeso said that they had a mandate that “we would speak to a minimum of four lawmakers, two on each side in the House and the Senate to get their take. We would give them five, 10 minutes of time, this on top of longform.” Davis has done a series with candidates in which they take part in some kind of physical activity, while teams also have interviewed secretaries of state.

Still, exactly how much of an audience streaming is not entirely clear. 

All of the networks have released some of their data, primarily on growth in the number of hours that viewers watch in a given period, but they have not released more specific audience figures. Nielsen, meanwhile, also has released scant independent audience data.

According to ABC News, from July to September, ABC News Live saw 112 million hours streamed, with 41 million in September alone. For the fiscal year, they had 400 million hours streamed. The network also noted the uptick in big events, like the coverage of the first four days of coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, with 4.4 million hours of content watched.

According to NBC News, NBC News Now had 100 million hours viewed in the third quarter, and 37 million hours viewed in September. It was the network’s third quarter in a row hitting 100 million hours viewed, and the network says that it looking to “triple digit growth” in the audience year over year.

CBS News said that viewers spend an average of 1.4 billion minutes, on average, on streaming per month. That works out to roughly 23 million hours viewed per month. The network said that the figures are not complete, as some partners do not provide the data. But the network said that since a rebrand last year, on a total day basis the average minutes per viewer increased by 11% to 117 minutes,

Jane Hall, professor at American University, said, “If I were a broadcast network executive, I would want to be everywhere, because that is the world that we are living in.” The channels allow them to do that, and also amortize costs across the news division and to try out new people and new ideas, she said.

Given that network evening news still commands the largest number of regular news viewers, even though people have written it off for years, the streaming channels on election night are “certainly going to be a showcase and extension of their brand,” particularly for younger viewers, she said. An element of that is maintaining the same journalistic standards on the streaming channel.

“It makes good sense in a business way and hopefully good sense in a public service way,” said Hall, author of Politics and the Media: Intersections and New Directions.

CBS News’ Galloway said that “there is a broadcast audience that has been there and continues to be there. And then we have a streaming audience, which is dramatically younger, two-thirds under 48.”

He said that is is also almost evenly split between men and women.

“There can be a streaming audience. There can be a broadcast audience. There can be an audience that goes between broadcast and streaming,” Galloway said.

He said that they measure what is working and what is not working by how long people are watching, and whether the trend is that “they are coming back more frequently, or if the trend is that they are watching for a short period of time or coming back less frequently.” 

“That is the greatest indicator to me as to whether we are providing information that an audience wants and finds useful, but also are engaging with the audience. And right now those signals are all good,” he said.

He noted that the network, too, saw a viewership bounce with major breaking news and events. They had four times the normal streaming audience on the day of the death of Queen Elizabeth. Given that, with an election on a national scale, “we have to make sure we bring it on nights like this because our audience expects it.” 

Huey-Burns said that streaming has “the luxury of more time, and that is so critical for politics. We can have longer conversations, more nuanced conversations, because we have a little bit more time to kind of get into those details.” She said that is especially the case with Red & Blue, which recently moved to D.C. from New York.

NBC News’ Rodriguez said that they want to show that “you should be able to come to NBC News Now at any given moment and have the same experience you have watching network news. We don’’t see it as two separate things. It is really one thing, one team.” 

On election night, that will carry through in the way that results are reported, as they plan to show viewers, graphically and visually, what they are seeing in the control room. They also will remind viewers that there is a chance that they will not call the balance of power on election night, given the expected numbers of mail in ballots, and that the results in some races may not be known until Wednesday or later in the week.

All of the networks are mindful of the disparities in early vote, mail-in vote and Election Day vote and the necessity to explain to viewers that, as ballots are counted, the trajectory of a race could change significantly. That was an issue in 2020, particularly in Pennsylvania, as Donald Trump ignored the remaining, Democratic-heavy mail in ballots to be counted and declared victory on election night.

“We are just going to follow what the numbers tell us,”  said Hallie Jackson, who anchors Hallie Jackson Now, noting that their decision desk is walled off from the editorial side. “So even if we wanted to call races we can’t. So we are at the mercy of the numbers and of voters. We are going to be super transparent and real and authentic to our viewers about what this process is like.”

Rodriguez calls it a “myth” that streaming is a mobile play, noting that it is just 2% to 3% of the audience on any given day. Rather, some of their top viewing comes on platforms like Samsung TV, Roku and YouTube.

That said, she also points out differences in the streaming audience, which explains why the network has gone for longer form segments and interviews. “They have actively chosen, they have opted in to watch news on streaming,” she said. “So it is a pretty serious news audience who is seeking that out, and we have the space to give them depth and context, and have the space to give them details, and also, on an overall basis, to cover a real wide range of stories.” 

With that in mind, she said that the midterm coverage has focused on trying to get to “the heart of what people talk about or what is relevant to them.” She points to coverage of the price of gas and how that affects people’s thinking going into the polls, rather than focusing on polls or government policy in covering people’s economic concerns.

Jackson said that the streaming audience is different from that of her MSNBC show, which is a heavier focus on politics.

She while they are bringing smart coverage, “the best compliment I got is from my father in law, admittedly a biased source, who was like, ‘Wow, when I watch your streaming show, I feel like that is the you I see on weekends. That is the ethos and the vibe that we’re bringing. We’re not ‘on high’ delivering [the news]. Our hope is that we are relevant and approachable.” 

ABC News Live’s Tienabeso also said that viewers want stories with deeper dives and broader appeal, as well as to hear from lawmakers themselves. He gave as an example a 12-minute profile piece on Walker, something that “won’t happen on linear” given the time constraints. He said that a difference from 2020, when the channel was rebooted, is that more lawmakers and their staffs are familiar with the platform. 

On election night, the channel plans to fill in the gaps when the broadcast network goes to break or tosses coverage to affiliates, “to keep the election momentum going,” he said. He said that the midterms have been a “unique test case” as they look to the next cycle.

“We have been doing this for several years now,” he said. “Our booking teams have made really positive contacts. Our shows are more established and keep growing. So this is really our moment to begin striking, but also to begin to prepare for 2024 as well.” 

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