Long reads

This is the news

In an era of instant access to information and highly tailored niche-interest TV channels, the 24-hour news channel faces fresh challenges. Andy Fry reports.

When radio stations seek to justify their existence in the post-iPod world, they generally make two points. First, people like the personalities, not just the music itself. Second, radio introduces listeners to music that they wouldn’t find if left to their own devices. For individual radio stations, then, the route to success is not just to play music, but to hire charismatic DJs that can entertain audiences and know how to balance new content with old. Up to a point, this philosophy also applies to news. In an era when much of the same footage of the Libyan civil war, the Japanese Earthquake, Europe’s debt crisis or the latest celebrity scandal can be accessed with ease from a range of sources, on-screen presentation, analysis and story selection are more critical than ever to distinguishing a news channel from its rivals. This message has had a clear impact in the US, where primetime programming on Fox News, MSNBC and CNN has moved towards opinion, commentary and editorialising. At first, CNN resisted this shift, but by the autumn of 2010 it had revamped its primetime schedule in a bid to improve ratings, including the launch of Parker Spitzer, an unashamedly opinion-based show. Although this has now been replaced by another show, Into The Arena, the message is that polemic is seen as the route to primetime ratings success.

This shift, which is also emerging in the international channel space, only tells part of the story however. The relationship between news and digital media differs from that of radio in one critical respect – audiences will not tolerate any delay in the provision of need-to-know news. This is why all the major players have extended their proposition out of cable and satellite into IPTV, online, mobile and tablets. It’s why they have also explored free-to-air channels, branded blocks and JVs with local news suppliers.

Total news access isn’t just important because the audience expects it. It’s also crucial from a promotional point of view. While news channels don’t celebrate bad news, there’s no question that sudden and unexpected developments like those in North Africa are a major opportunity for them to reach new audiences, which often spend the first few minutes and hours after an event zapping between news sources. For channels, being first on the scene and delivering great coverage is a way of prising viewers away from their default provider.

So how have the major players responded to the new dynamics in market?  BBC World News commercial director Colin Lawrence says: “We start from a strong position in terms of the BBC’s brand and its track record as a news-gathering organisation. But I think the thing you really saw in the first part of this year was the absolute authority of the BBC’s news-gathering. In terms of insight and access, I don’t think any of the competition can match what we do.”

Richness of coverage is critical to the brand, says Lawrence: “Your first alert to a news story might be via a text or your PC. But where do you go next on your news journey? For us, the key has been the detail we can provide across both the rolling news network and the bbc.com website.” Echoing the defence of radio in the on-demand world, he says: “A piece of video or a text is unsatisfactory in isolation. You can’t be so reductive in news. The reason you still see a vibrant audience for news bulletins is that people want interpretation, and that’s what BBC World News offers.” 

“For us, the key has been the detail we can provide across both the rolling news network and the bbc.com website.”
Colin Lawrence, BBC World News

While the BBC may be more conservative than rivals when it comes to delivering opnion-based programming (“Our approach in programmes like Hardtalk and Dateline would be to make sure we have a balance of strong alternative opinions,” says Lawrence), the channel has shown a willingness to stick with stories that have a compelling dramatic component, even if they are not news, purely-defined. A case in point is its extensive coverage of the Chilean miners story. “We did that because it was clear that our audience was deeply concerned about the story,” he says.

BBC World News is in 252 million TV homes worldwide, mostly as a subscription channel (the exception to this being the Middle East where it is free-to-air). New media will be right at the heart of the channel when it joins the rest of the BBC’s newsgathering operation at Broadcasting House in central London in 2012. While expansion on to digital platforms doesn’t necessarily bring new pay revenues with it, “it does broaden the advertising and sponsorship proposition by offering additional engagement with audiences and experiential elements,” says Lawrence. The channel’s most recent sponsorship deal saw DuPont join forces with BBC World News behind a new 20 x 30 minutes series called Horizons, which will look at companies making an impact on the way the world will live and work in the future and will be supported on the digital landscape in a variety of ways (including Facebook and Twitter).

Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera is in a different position to BBC World News because it can rely on funding from the Qatari government, channelled via the Qatar Media Corporation. For Roch Pellerin, head of global distribution, this means the goal, pure and simple, is to expand distribution: “Al Jazeera started by supplying a free-to-air Arabic-language news service to the Middle East and Arabic speakers in Europe, Asia and the US. Then, five years ago, it was logical to launch an English channel.” Today that English-language channel is in 250 million homes across 135 countries. “Our agenda is to get the widest distribution, which means pay TV and free-to-air branded blocks are important,” says Pellerin. “All told, we have around 500 carriage deals, the most recent of which include ONO in Spain and Total Play in Mexico. We’re also available via DISH in the US.”

While TV remains the most potent of Al Jazeera’s platforms, Pellerin echoes Lawrence when he says: “You have to be platform-agnostic. You can’t be a 21st century news provider and not be on all available platforms. In the Middle East, Al Jazeera was top news network on Twitter during the Egyptian uprising and has thousands of videos on YouTube.” Being available  doesn’t always mean focusing on the latest platforms, says Pellerin: “There are places like Africa and Bangladesh where mobile penetration is high, but most phones are not 3G, so we have to reflect that in the news content we deliver to those audiences.”

Al Jazeera is still regarded as something of an interloper in markets like the US and Europe. But in countries that don’t belong to the Anglo-American cultural tradition there is a more level playing field. Here, Pellerin believes certain factors  distinguish the service from its rivals. “I think the physical closeness of the news team to the Middle East makes a difference, particularly at times like this when so much has been happening in North Africa. But there’s also a historic and cultural understanding that informs the channels,” he says.

However, Al Jazeera is not purely focused on Middle Eastern news, and Pellerin points out that there are other points of differentiation. “We have a global organisation like our rivals. If there’s a point of difference, I think Al Jazeera tends to cover stories for a longer time after the initial breaking news. For me an example of that is the way we continue to cover Haiti,” he says.

Of particular strategic significance is that Al Jazeera is moving towards a more localised strategy. In September 2010, it acquired a TV station in Bosnia and began broadcasting a local service in January 2011. More significantly, February saw it acquire Turkey’s Cine5 for U$40m (?28 million). The plan, says Pellerin, is to launch a local news channel.

Growing presence

The Middle East is an increasingly important market for Sky News. The BSkyB-owend channel has a significant international presence and, according to Simon Cole, deputy head of Sky News, international distribution is now very important for the channel, which has grown reach from 69 million homes to over 90 million homes in the last two years. “More people watch Sky News every day in Europe than any other international news channel,” says Cole, citing the latest EMS Survey figures showing the channel reaches 2,151,000 (4.6%) upscale Europeans. Sky News HD also has a growing presence in the Middle East and Asia (where it will be available in Malaysia on the Astro platform offering coverage of the UK’s Royal Wedding).

Plans are currently afoot to spin Sky News off from owner BSkyB as part of the deal struck by News Corp to secure regulatory approval for its planned acquisition of the UK pay TV operator.  “At the moment the plans for Sky News to be spun off as a separate company are still just a proposal,” says Cole. “If this were to happen, it would effectively maintain the status quo in respect of ownership, with News Corp owning a minority stake in Sky News as it does in BSkyB today. Sky News would therefore remain wholly dedicated to its international development as it is today.”

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Sky plans to launch an Arabic channel, Sky News Arabia, in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Media Investment Company, in spring 2012. The channel will be available across TV, mobile and web. “Plans will in no way change in light of the News Corp bid and we remain fully committed to the project,” says Cole. “The political developments in the region have only proved just how important the area is in terms of news. Sky News in the UK has seen some of its very best viewing figures over the past few months and we are confident that we are offering a genuine alternative to the current news offerings in the Middle East and North Africa with the new channel.”

Multi-platform distribution is also increasingly important to Sky, which recently launched an innovative iPad app (see sidebar). Skynews.com receives 10 million monthly unique creating 100 million monthly page views, according to Cole.

The strategic value of being available across media platforms is also emphatically underlined by France 24 which, like Al Jazeera, is primarily publicly-funded. Global distribution chief Philippe Rouxel says: “Typically, our three language-based websites – French, English, Arabic – attract five to six million unique users a month. During March that rose to 14 million. Looking back to the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia, our site was number one among international providers.”

France 24 has made it a priority to be available on new digital platforms at the earliest opportunity: “Cross-platform has been at the core of our strategy since pre-launch four years ago,” says Rouxel. “We knew we had to be there if we wanted to be comparable to CNN or the BBC. We also recognised the shift in audience behaviour which means that news needs to be instant, on all platforms, easy-to-use, and often free. Otherwise people get frustrated quickly.”

With this in mind, he says, France24 was an early mover with video on the web and on other new platforms. “We were the first to launch our channel on the web and to stream a live signal via the web,” says Rouxel. “We were also the first channel to launch a live iPhone app in 2009. That has now had two million downloads. More recently we have gone onto tablets, which are becoming a major platform for people who want to fill a few empty minutes with news, maybe on the train to work or waiting between meetings.”

Like its rivals, France 24 pursues TV distribution but recognises the need to be flexible in some markets: “We’re now in 160 million homes worldwide, double what we had four years ago, including DISH and RCN in the US. But in markets where there are barriers to TV distribution we look to other platforms,” says Rouxel. Recent alternative platform developments include distribution via mobile platforms TIM Brazil and NTT DoCoMo Japan.

In theory, there’s nothing to stop international news being endlessly segmented along cultural lines, as long as there are public bodies ready to underwrite the costs. While France 24 is probably the most advanced non-Anglo-Saxon example, other channels offering a distinctive perspective on world events include Germany’s Deutsche-Welle TV, NHK World, RT (Russia Today) and CCTV’s English-language news channel CNTV. If there’s a difference between France 24 and CNTV, however, it is that the latter is playing a more overt ambassadorial role on behalf of its host nation. RT has a similar mandate. While the network has an authentic news gathering operation, the decision to disseminate news in English, Spanish and Arabic  is fundamentally about putting Russia on the map as a political force and potential trading partner.

Perhaps the most unusual model in the news broadcasting business is Euronews, which reaches around 330 million homes worldwide via 11 different language-versions (raising funds via a mix of public and commercial sources). Launched in 1993 by a number of broadcasters within the EBU, various shifts in shareholder structure mean that the channel’s ownership now consists of: France TV, RAI, RTR Russia, TRT Turkey, SSR Switzerland, SNRT Morocco, TVR Romania, RTP Portugal, NTU Ukraine and a variety of other broadcast partners. A Ukrainian-language version unveiled in late 2010. It’s a complex structure, admits Michael Peters, managing director of the executive board, “but the thing that stays consistent is the shareholders’ desire for an impartial news offer.”

Like its rivals, Euronews saw a big spike in audience on its online service during the recent run of news stories. “The audience doubled,” says Peters. “While a lot of our footage was the same as [that of] the other broadcasters, we had some exclusives – such as the claim by Muammar Gaddafi that his father had funded the presidential campaign of Nicolas Sarkozy during 2007.”

Multicultural perspective

Like Rouxel, Peters says Euronews is not trying to replace its rivals – but he does believe that it provides a unique multicultural perspective on news. In terms of the changing news landscape, he says it has had an impact on Euronews in a couple of key ways. First, “our broadcasting model historically, partly because of our shareholder structure, was to run news actuality with a voiceover. But the need to have a distinctive engaging brand has encouraged us to start using presenter-led pieces on-air for the first time”, says Peters.

Second, Euronews, like its rivals, has thrown itself wholeheartedly into new media, making itself available via online, mobile and connected TV. The latter has taught the channel an important lesson, says Peters: “You have to tailor your content for the different platforms and portals,” he says. “On YouTube, we have a franchise called No Comment  which does extremely well for us, but it doesn’t work so well on our website. In another scenario, we have just done a deal with the carrier Air France, which will see us provide a 40-minute weekly news report, which is anchored by a presenter. That’s a completely different approach to YouTube.”

Such differences in execution, however, cannot be at the expense of the brand, says Peters. “When you do things differently across different media, then the only thing that unites it all is the brand.”

While channels including France24 and Al Jazeera bring a different perspective to news, business channel CNBC differentiates in terms of its target audience and content. Like rival Bloomberg, it focuses on high-end decision-makers, but lots of the strategic decisions it is making regarding content and distribution are along similar lines. It has, for example, made it a priority to extend its reach, says Justine Powell, vice-president, distribution EMEA: “It’s my role to extend our reach in every day-part, across every platform, in every location.” CNBC is open to both free-to-air or pay TV deals. “It’s something we decide market by market, says Powell, “Obviously, extra reach is good in terms of what we offer advertisers and sponsors. But subscription revenues are important too.” It is getting harder to make platforms pay, because there are so many news sources to choose from. Where CNBC encounters downward pressure on price “we seek to sustain our level of fee by offering more content, for example by providing a VOD catalogue.”

CNBC’s business segment rival Bloomberg, currently in 252 million homes, has made rapid strides in Asia. In new media, April 2011 saw the launch of a new Bloomberg Businessweek iPad App (Bloomberg bought the magazine in 2009). Called Bloomberg Businessweek+, the app combines the magazine’s perspective on global business news and market trends with content and interactive features. “We re-imagined the Bloomberg Businessweek magazine for the iPad, enriching it in ways that make sense for readers,” explains Oke Okaro, general manager/global head Bloomberg Mobile.

Local audiences

While channels including CNBC have chosen to target a specific audience, the original 24-hour news channel, CNN, has had a rough time in the last year, seeing its ratings suffer at the hands of US rivals and losing key talent that it has tried to build its brand around. But in other respects it has made progress in revitalising its brand. Currently in around 200 million homes worldwide, CNN has been one of the pioneers in rolling out HD and has  made important strides in reaching out to local audiences across platforms. Last December it backed up the launch of its Abu Dhabi media hub with a revamp of its Arabic-language website. At the same time, says Rani Raad, general manager of CNNArabic.com: “Expanding on current activity with influential bloggers and Facebook forums in the Arab world, there are two segments for key social media influencers to post their thoughts and ideas, and add their URL so users can access their pages. The site’s team will provide a weekly roundup of the most important and interesting Arab blogs and forums and invite users to recommend favourites.” This is a timely addition. Broadcasters are engaging viewers and providing content across platforms. CNN appears to be exploring the point at which the two collide. If there’s a message from the recent developments in the Middle East it’s that new providers are no longer just observers in the debate but participants. For the Facebook/iPhone/Twitter generation, there’s no question that delivering news through social media can prove very compelling, since it allows them to build a dialogue with both the news provider and peers.

Tags: Channels, News, TV