Breaking away to deliver breaking news – what is the future of the 24hr broadcast news channel?

By Marilyn Alexander, Communications Consultant. 

Peter Arnett is reporting from the Al-Rashid hotel in Baghdad as the first air strikes of the Gulf war hit the Iraqi capital. He’s live on CNN. Audiences around the world are gripped. The 24-hour news channel has come of age.

Fast forward to January 2011. Tahrir Square, Egypt. Citizen journalism ensures that pictures of demonstrations and the resulting crackdown are beamed directly to a global audience.

The next year, 8 million people tune in live to YouTube to watch Felix Baumgartner jump from outer space. Many times that audience log in to watch it over the next few days. Spin on to April 2013 and the Boston marathon bombings. CNN stumbles in front of a huge and anxious audience claiming an arrest had been made when it hadn’t. Live blogging – with its speed, transparency of sources, and pared-down format – comes into its own.

The past two decades have seen a revolution in every aspect of the media industry – technological change has enabled consumers to develop sophisticated and subtle patterns of behaviour, constantly being updated from a variety of sources. Cable news established the 24-hour news habit, but today social media and mobile phones fulfil the instant news needs of consumers better than any TV channel can.

24-hour TV news broke the audience away from the daily news cycle, focused on a flagship primetime newscast. But should linear satellite channels still be the focus of so much attention in the interactive internet age? They don’t quite give us news when we want it – we often have to wait 15 or 30 minutes for the story to come around – so it’s news-not-quite-on-demand. If we want it now, we will go online and get it instantly.

Twitter – and increasingly live blogs of breaking news events – consistently beat 24-hour TV channels. And on those defining moments that bring the nation together the multichannel broadcasters will, and regularly do, clear their main mass-audience channels.

So that makes a news channel perfect for those quite big, but not really big, stories for people who want information quite fast – but not immediately. By anyone’s judgment, that’s a small (and slightly weird) segment. Beyond that, it’s great for people stranded in hotel rooms, office foyers or trading floors. But even that doesn’t provide a huge audience – and probably not one in need of an entire network.

24-hour channels warp news value judgments

The need to fill airtime – and particularly the need to be seen to be live – means that in the heat of the moment questionable editorial judgments can be made.

Everything seems to be “breaking news”.

When a presenter feels compelled to say “Plenty more to come, none of it news. But that won’t stop us” (BBC News’s Simon McCoy, waiting for the royal birth ), then there really is a problem.

The world has moved on

The genesis behind the news channel was the advent of global satellite links. News could be transmitted from anywhere, repackaged and then delivered to people’s homes. When CNN launched in the 1980s the live capability of a satellite network was breathtaking and transformative.

Now, technological developments mean that for the most part the internet has replaced satellite links for capturing and distributing the news. At the same time, consumers have broadband links to home, office, tablet and phone. Yet the industry remains wedded to the idea of a single, linear channel. Audiences have never been convinced. Viewing figures for news channels have always been low – spiking when a big event happens. The justification for broadcasters was to have a rolling spine of coverage that could be turned to at moments of need. Increasingly, however, we turn to the internet.

News channels prize being first – a race that they can’t win, and nobody else cares about. “Did we beat CNN?” is a phrase often heard in a newsroom. But in the digital age social media will always win the race to be first (if not always the race to be right). And who, other than the inhabitants of newsrooms, is watching enough news channels simultaneously to know who was first anyway? Those 30 seconds might be important for commodity traders – but for news audiences?

In today’s media environment any broadcaster is first for minutes at most – by which time Twitter or the competition will have caught up. Being first – the primary criterion for 24-hour news channels – is increasingly the least interesting and effective value they offer.

The problem isn’t the consumer

At heart, the problem is a closed, linear technology failing to keep pace with the growing on-demand, interactive expectations of the public.

News channels suffer from low audiences – at times vanishingly small. These audiences were boosted by a switch to multichannel and digital TV; now they are at best flat and in many cases declining.

This isn’t a sign of a lack of interest in news. In every major market, well over 80% of consumers read, watch or listen to the news each day. But they are becoming increasingly discerning – using multiple sources to create their own news agenda, many of them online.

So what’s the answer?

A news service for the next two decades

The legacy of 24-hour news channels is holding back broadcasters in adapting to the potential of the digital age. If you gave a digital news operation even a fraction of the tens of millions of pounds currently spent annually on a news channel, just think of what you could achieve.

A truly news-on-demand service, with no heritage – not reusing TV material, nor reusing print – could be genuinely ground-breaking, reconstructing a news operation and creating a new relationship with audiences and consumers.

This is starting to be recognised in the US:

Elsewhere there are fewer signs of experimenting with continuous TV news. ITV, unhindered by a news channel, reconfigured their website into a live stream that is both innovative and regularly beats the competition. The BBC’s director of news, James Harding, has acknowledged the need for more R&D by creating a “Newslabs” team looking at data and visual journalism.

But perhaps the industry needs a bolder vision… we look forward to a future where the news is the news we need, or want, to hear and is delivered to us when we need to hear it.

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