CBS raises the ante in online news race with Evening News simulcast

New York (NY) - In September 1963, about a year and a half after he launched the CBS Evening News, Walter Cronkite instituted one of the most innovative developments in journalism: On the surface, it appeared that CBS merely expanded the broadcast from 15 minutes to a half-hour. But in doing so, Cronkite actually helped invent the minute-by-minute "layout" system of story prioritization that enabled television news editors to manage their broadcasts like a press agency. It was an innovation that NBC would emulate only weeks later, and that would establish television as the principal provider of news for most Americans.

Forty-three years later, almost to the day, CBS will attempt to launch Katie Couric as the new caretaker of Cronkite's seat by attempting a different kind of technical innovation: On 5 September, the network will simulcast the Evening News during the same time zone as the viewer (assuming he doesn't fib about his local time zone in the entry form). At least on the East Coast, viewers may watch Couric at 6:30 pm ET, either on TV or the Web.

In March 2005, soon after Bob Schieffer assumed the anchor chair from Dan Rather, began presenting an edited "Online Edition" of the Evening News, available for download after the broadcast edition signed off on the west coast. Again, NBC soon followed, then ABC launched separate, online-only editions of World News available during mid-afternoon, although currently those abbreviated editions often serve as previews of coming attractions for the evening broadcast. ABC also offers a full-time, all-online news service, ABC News Now, comprised in large part of taped and replayed programming produced specifically for streaming.

But CBS' next move, announced yesterday, is different for the key reason that, for the first time, one of the networks principal news products will be available on a medium that effectively competes with itself, along with all the other Web news sources currently clamoring for the public's attention. For affiliate stations - a diminishing majority of which are actually owned by CBS Corp. - this means a portion of the viewing audience won't be tuned to their channels, and therefore won't be seeing local advertising inserts.

Despite that fact, CBS spokesperson Shannon L. Jacobs told TG Daily, the network managed to craft an agreement with its affiliates, effectively giving the network their permission - if not officially their blessing - to go ahead with the plan. But CBS' message to its affiliates may have included the notion that the Web simulcast actually won't compete all that much. "We don't think people will watch the online version if they are at home and able to watch it on TV," Jacobs told us, "so [the simulcast] doesn't take away viewers from affiliates or our owned stations. This will allow those who are not at home or in front of TV to watch."

"The broadcast networks are definitely dipping their toes in the water and experimenting with new forms of distribution for the evening newscasts," stated Brian Stelter, proprietor of TVNewser, easily the most influential blog devoted to US broadcast journalism. "It's not clear whether any of these experiments are being used in great numbers, though."

Historically, it's always taken time for the proprietors of an old medium to transfer their mindsets to a new way of thinking when moving to a new medium. Edward R. Murrow's famous words, when opening his first See It Now TV broadcast in November 1951, could still ring true today: "This is an old team learning a new trade." Even after 10 years of MSNBC on the Web, networks still wrestle with how and why the Internet and broadcast mindsets fail to converge. Conceivably, if a network were to simply produce one product for two media - assuming no party with ties to only one medium were to object - it could reach a broader audience while reducing costs.

Perhaps CBS is taking a step toward determining whether such a fantastic notion could ever become practical. But if it's anything we at TG Daily could tell CBS - we'd happily waive the 5¢ consulting fee - it's that online news ages very rapidly. After and perhaps even during the Evening News simulcast, online viewers may be able to dial up the broadcast even as late as the following afternoon. But since it would already be yesterday's news, how many viewers actually find the "Online Edition" of the CBS Evening News, and the "NetCast" version of NBC Nightly News, valuable?

"If you consider the evening newscasts to be a first draft of history, then they have a certain time capsule quality to them, and that could make archived online streams an attractive option for users," Stelter told us. "But I'm not sure many consumers want to watch last night's news after the next day's sunrise."

Were it not for pharmaceutical companies, some say the evening TV newscasts would already be extinct (PBS' News Hour with Jim Lehrer notwithstanding). They're not the revenue sources they used to be, especially in comparison with their morning news counterparts - assuming the term "news" still applies there as much as it once did. The key reason TV networks are exploring the Web is the same reason magazine publishers continue to "explore" the Web: the prospects of subsidiary revenue sources through repurposing and rebranding.

"All three evening newscasts are being rebranded as a platform for news throughout the day," remarked Stelter. "Essentially, the morning shows are with you until noon, when the evening news teams take over. And the evening news takes you to primetime." Currently, networks create short previews or, in the case of ABC, 15-minute Webcasts. CBS will be establishing a similar online platform around its new signature brand - not really the Evening News so much as Katie Couric herself. The network said yesterday that would be offering CBS News First Look with Katie Couric each afternoon, describing it as a preview of "stories being considered for coverage on that night's CBS Evening News," along with a daily blog entitled "Couric & Company."

Does the creation of "platforms" around the network news brands actually extend their lifespan as intended? Or do they actually highlight the "fish out of water" nature of the convergence of the two media, which is the frequent subject of Brian Williams' blog, "The Daily Nightly," for NBC - in so doing, perhaps contributing to the broadcasts' inevitable obsolescence? "I think it extends the lifespan of the format," responded Stelter, "while at the same time expanding and experimenting with the format. Clearly, the half-hour newscast is not a model that works for every news consumer. But it's a model that still works for many, and making it available on the Internet simply enables more individuals to access it."

On the other hand, an Internet edition or simulcast could conceivably open up access to a news broadcast to an entirely new audience: specifically, those who remain loyal to its own competitors. Couric's audience could thus expand to include some of Williams' or Charles Gibson's viewers. But just how many? Would that be a material number? And assuming it could be, is it something that can be measured? Or worth measuring?

Which leads to an entirely new dilemma: The value of advertising on each of today's TV news broadcasts continues to be measured in terms of how many viewers it garners over and above the competition. Assuming the networks' recent Internet experiments are successful, there could be a great many viewers who tune in to more than one Webcast, or perhaps even selected parts of all three. Doesn't this make it more difficult for ratings services to determine the relative value of one network's broadcast over the other? "Yes. Definitely," responded TVNewser's Brian Stelter. "The Nielsen numbers are already outdated, and it's only going to get worse. I'm not sure what the solution is."

For a growing number of us, the Web has already been around for longer than a decade, and yet broadcast networks are still struggling with how to embrace it as a medium for their content. News, it would seem, would be the single category of content best suited for adaptation to the Web; and yet the process of adaptation - just as for print journalism - requires a change of mindset that compels broadcasters to let go of many of the presumptions they carry with them from their old medium. Murrow successfully shed the baggage of radio when making the transition to television; Cronkite, a decade later, transformed his experience from wire service journalism to build the business processes of the broadcast medium.

And now it's Couric's turn to lead the jump from one pond into the other. But the new pond isn't as new as it was, and the opportunity isn't quite as fresh or as innovative. More importantly, if the Web is truly to blame for the decline in viewership of television news, then the reason for that decline must run deeper than the fact that the Web comes to viewers on a different screen. As CBS itself acknowledged to us, the purpose of the simulcast is to help its Evening News reach viewers on the other screen - adaptation for convenience purposes rather than evolutionary. Perhaps now more clearly than ever, CBS News is an old team learning a new trade.