Friday, August 06, 2010

On the Future of TV News

With reports of journalism jobs being hard(er) to find and discussions at conferences like the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications's annual convention, people in the news industry can't help but wonder about the future. Not just their individual futures but their industry's future.

It's a discussion we've had before, on various platforms and from various points of view. The conclusion remains that we don't know what the future will look like. We just know that it will be different.

I'd like to take a look at what is commonly referred to as journalism's main enemy: the Internet. Why does it work? Because it's customizable. It's targeted. Similarly, which TV stations/networks/coverage tend to make the most cash (and therefore survive longer)? Specialised stations and shows. Things like live sports, or channels dedicated to a single interest, like home design and renovations or fashion. These networks survive because they've found a niche market and they're feeding off of it, both in terms of ratings and ads - it's a targeted "sure thing" investment opportunity.

How does this apply to TV news? Journalists usually agree that all consumers should have access to a source of news that will educate and inform them as well-rounded citizens. In other words, just because your main interest is the stock market doesn't mean you shouldn't know what's going on in Parliament. But let's be honest. After the first five minutes or so of political news, you'll probably switch channels. A good news network will try to keep you watching despite your lack of interest, by using teases, for example. But that's not a commercially viable long-term strategy to retain your attention.

The only way TV news is going to survive in a future overtaken by the Internet, PVRs and "On Demand" is to give consumers what they want, and now. That, for lack of a better word, is what they want. So why not give it to them?

It's not just sports or specialised channels that draw audiences in. News events do the same. Remember #Obamawa? What about the #H1N1 scare or #Haiti aid or, the latest big issue, the BP oil spill? What do these things have in common?

People want to know. They want to know everything and they want to know it now. They just can't get enough coverage and they'll watch several news cycles on several news networks to get their fix. This effectively creates a niche market for information on this issue. But after a day or so, most of the viewers think enough is enough.

What is the future of TV news? Feed the monster. But only if it's hungry.

Every time an event or issue temporarily overtakes the news market, create a specialised "On Demand" stream that will broadcast anything and everything that has to do with the subject. Whether it's NASA's latest space mission or Canada Day, a natural disaster or a political faux-pas, create an individualised stream and feed the monster.

Most of the networks already do it online. Those who know about it and have access to the Internet at the peak of their interest will routinely stream press conference feeds or sporting event coverage. Currently, the networks offer these services for free, mostly because consumers won't pay for a service they're already paying for, whether they consider that to be their cable TV or Internet. Also, most people aren't comfortable paying for any kind of information on the Internet because they're certain they can get it somewhere for free.

But can anyone guarantee a high-quality, uninterrupted, 24h specialised stream? Not on the Internet. Not yet, anyway. But on TV? They've pretty much got it down.

My suggestion - and I want to note that I haven't crunched the numbers on this since broadcast finances are not something I'm familiar with - is to provide that specialised stream on cable TV. Users with a digital box can simply call up their provider (or use self-serve menus) and add CBC News Network 2 or 3 or 4 (for example), depending on which major news story they would like to follow non-stop. The subscription would automatically expire once the story and coverage dies down, or the user could call and cancel it at any time. Set a one-time subscription fee of under $5 per story/stream - my suggestion is somewhere around $3 plus any applicable taxes - and a minimum subscription period of 48 hours, and I'm sure people will pick up on it. I would.

The network would have to broadcast several signals, but since we're switching to digital anyway, it probably wouldn't put too much of a dent in the budget. Getting CRTC clearance is another story.

And what kind of coverage would our reduced newsrooms offer to their new avid customers? Live streams of any of the gazillions of press conferences going on about the topic, interspersed with airport-style "breaking news" segments recorded in a centralised studio, potentially by anchors assigned only to that specific developing news topic or perhaps by the anchor on shift recording for all the specialised channels. You could also throw in live hits from the network reporters on location assigned to the story, interviews with experts and people affected by the story, and related pre-packaged reports - which you're producing anyway. Add in re-packed news conference highlights - longer than the ones played in the main network's news cycle - and boards showing upcoming events related to story, and you've got a nice loop-able mix of non-stop coverage on the news event du jour for the modern news junkie.

In terms of staff, the only extra hires would be technicians to monitor the various streams and editors to package and produce the stream's content. Current online editors would be perfect candidates for this position since they already understand the technology and short attention span of today's news audience. Most of the content is already coming in for the 24h news stations and the live press conference feeds are usually provided as in-house service for a minimal fee.

That way, when a major news story or event takes over the news industry, we won't be overwhelmed by endless reports on an issue, meanwhile getting less than satisfactory coverage of all the other going-ons in the world. And we won't be saturated by a constant flow of information that will make us stop caring about a potentially important issue, or worse, make us actually care about a non-important issue. Like Lindsay Lohan being sentenced to jail.

I don't know about you, but if I could buy non-stop quality coverage of the next shuttle launch, I would. Even if I know I could watch it for free online at NASA TV. Why? Because I can get everything I need to know about that one topic in one spot. And because I'm a space geek. And a political geek would buy coverage to Obama's visit to Canada, and a TV geek would purchase a CRTC telecommunications panel package. In this case, the repetition of the news cycle wouldn't be such a bore because you would choose to watch it.

What do you think? Could dedicated temporary cable streams be the future of TV news?

I guess there's only one way to find out... Stay tuned!

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