2007 State of the News Media Report - Cable TV
While it is among the newer technologies, cable may be as challenged by the digital revolution as any medium. The main reason is that the Internet is a threat to cable’s great appeal: immediacy and news on demand.
Viewing habits have already changed. Consumers now have the choice to get many of their TV news shows without needing to own a TV — through the Internet, downloaded as a podcast or read on their cell phones, all trends likely to accelerate as the reach of higher-speed broadband connections spreads.
In 2006, all three cable news channels made their television content available on the “third screen” — the cell phone. MSNBC has made a specialized version of its site available to subscribers of most cell-phone companies, apart from sending headlines on the phones. CNN sends an audio feed of CNN Radio as well as headlines and CNN videos from the site, while Fox News began a new service in January 2007 that allows mobile phone users to listen to live audio of the channel’s on-air broadcasts (see more details in respective sections below).
While it is a niche market right now, the potential for growth of mobile phone content, both text and audio-visual, is huge. It is helped by the fact that the number of high-speed cell phone networks that can support video is on the rise. Mobile TV may be in its infancy, but it’s growing fast. It will be interesting to see how “news friendly” it will be.
Cable TV News Web sites
Source: Respective Web sites, December 2006
The extension to new platforms also brings with it new competition. The cable news networks need to outperform not just traditional rivals, but online news media leaders. Those include news aggregators such as Yahoo, AOL and Google. Those Web portals, which are already in heavy use and familiar to consumers, pose a serious challenge to any traditional media outlet, be it television, print or audio. They aggregate coverage from a wide variety of news outlets, aiming to give users a wider breadth of information in a kind of one-stop-shopping Web site. Both these activities are a function of time and convenience, and news outlets are worried that consumers might not think it worth their while to make the extra effort to come to their individual sites.
What is also unclear is what synergy or relationship there will be among different platforms. Will posting a story on the Web also drive viewers to the news organization’s TV product? Will cable networks become, some day, Internet companies, the prospect many think is facing newspapers?
While they have all developed their mobile content along similar lines, the three cable news channels have taken very different approaches to their online identities.
MSNBC.com comes across as an amalgam. As the online home of NBC, MSNBC and the weekly magazine Newsweek, the site strives to give all three their due while at the same time creating its own identity. Those efforts, however chaotic they may seem, have succeeded in building an audience.
Unlike its performance on cable TV, MSNBC’s Web site (which launched simultaneously with the cable channel in 1996 as a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC) has long been one of the top three news sites on the Internet, with a monthly average of 26 million unique visitors.
What is in the brand that draws users to the site?
No one trait jumps out. In our study of 38 different news websites, MSNBC doesn’t strongly emphasize any one area. Indeed, it did not earn the highest marks in category of content. But it scored fairly well at everything and did not earn low marks anywhere, one of the few sites that can make that claim. It really was a jack of all trades.
The site is word oriented. Roughly three-quarters of the stories on the homepage are text-based. Just 12% of stories took advantage of the video produced by either MSNBC or NBC. This puts it at the mid-low range of the spectrum for multimedia. On the days we examined, users could at one point access a slide show or an interactive graphic, but these were few and far between. There were no live components at all.
The lead story often has a video component attached to it, but most other video offerings on the page stand apart either within a section labeled “Video” or under the header “NBC News Highlights.”
A bigger draw may be the ways users can customize the news or add their own views, but even here the site doesn’t employ as much as others, falling in the mid-high range of the sites studied. Currently, the site has focused more on making its content mobile, rather than the site itself customizable. In November 2006, the Web site began offering free video podcasts of NBC’s Nightly News and Meet the Press. Earlier, in April 2006, the channel announced that a specialized, ad-supported version of the Web site would be available free on cell phones with Internet capability. MSNBC’s mobile phone service (called MSNBC.com Mobile) is available on all major phone networks. Initially it was only text, photos and podcasts, with a notice on the site saying that multimedia components were expected, but with no timeline mentioned.1 The new business model is seen to be a test to gauge how consumers react to advertising on their mobile devices. There are also additional RSS options.
The home page itself, though, is less flexible. There is only a simple key word search. And users can choose homepage layout, but only for the current view. At the next visit, it’s back to MSNBC’s design.
How about citizen voice — Web 2.0? MSNBC is not the top destination we found for users who want to be heard. There is no user-generated content, no user-based blogs, and no live discussion. There are a few ways to be heard. Some stories allow users to enter into an online chat. Also, users can rate a story and the results are used in a couple of different ways. First, the results for that story are posted at the bottom of the piece in a star system along with the number of ratings to date. Second, on each inside page is a list of “most popular” stories at a given moment.
As the online home of multiple news outlets (even Newsweek’s own site often directs people here) it is not surprising that brand identity can get confusing. There is content from all of its family members—MSNBC, NBC, Newsweek—as well as the Washington Post and the wire services. In fact, wire stories make up a good portion of their top headlines. Staff editors control the content, but again, there seems to be a bit of a split over whether their mission is to promote the family names or the content itself.
The top stories of the hour command a good amount of the prime real estate. The next three sections promote reports from each of the three news outlets, followed by Web site-only content — “only on MSNBC.com.” Scrolling down the page, though, a visitor can eventually get to a list of content organized by topics in the news. The editorial staff also keeps tight control over where users go once they enter. None of the stories we examined ever contained links to outside Web sites.
Perhaps in the end, it is the revenue structure, or lack thereof, that attracts people to the site. MSNBC.com expanded how many ads it contained from September 2006 to February of 2007, but it still remained on the low end. In September there were just 7 ads, all of which were self-promotional. In 2007, a few more had been added, including one prominent outside ad per day and a list of “sponsored links” at the bottom of the page.
Still, the most visible ones are self-promotional and are relatively unobtrusive.
The site doesn’t make up for the ad-free environment by asking users to pay. There is no fee-based content at all, not even the archive. Nor does the site demand that visitors reveal personal information; it has no registration at all.
Streaming an average of 50 million news videos a month, and averaging about 24 million unique visitors a month,2 CNN.com comes second to MSNBC among the three cable news sites in traffic.
While MSNBC has the advantage of being a partner of MSN, the leading Internet portal in the U.S., CNN benefits from its commercial relationship with Yahoo, which is the search engine for CNN and sells the advertising displayed on the site.3 It is also working to tie together its digital media components. In October of 2006, the channel formed “CNN Events,” a division devoted to cross-media marketing that allows a marketer to buy advertising across the CNN spectrum — television, the Internet, and newscasts provided through cell phones and podcasts.4
What impression does the site give its users? Like MSNBC, the site seems more about doing many different things than identifying itself around particular skills. Again like MSNBC, the site did not earn top marks in any one of our content categories, but scored in the mid-range for all, and earned low marks for none.
The site maintains the cable channel’s focus on up-to-the-minute information. But it also makes some effort to develop its own Web identity with less emphasis on the on-air personalities and more on user’s ability to customize the news. Beyond the top few stories, however, it also relies more often than not on outside wire copy for its headlines and its breadth.
On the homepage, the latest headlines take up the bulk of the screen view. The lead story dominates the site on the left of the screen, and is normally accompanied by three or four related stories that have some multimedia elements. On September 22, 2006 it was a story about the E. coli outbreak in spinach with links to a CNN video report on the lack of standards for spinach safety and a graphic map of states with E. coli outbreaks.
It adds new content at least every 20 minutes, with a time stamp for the latest update at the top of the homepage and time stamps at the top of each full story. The focus on continuous updates, though, seems to take priority over other depth to the news. The site averaged just four related story links to lead story and just over one for other top headlines.
The CNN name is important on the site, but as with depth, takes second seat to timeliness. Most headlines are wire stories, and those that come from CNN staff carry no bylines, except when stories are taken directly from the cable channel or occasionally from a sister outlet from the Time Warner family. The layout of the page is by top news and then by topic area like World, Health, Travel and Law, and the stories here are mostly AP as well. Overall, CNN.com fell in the high-mid range for the level of brand control.
Under the headlines is a list of video segments, offered again in two ways: either most popular or “best video” (though it is not entirely clear how “best” is determined). Next to that the site displays its premium video content — CNN Pipeline. A commercial-free subscription service of streaming video content, it was launched in December 2005 and has helped to make the site more appealing.5
CNN puts noticeable effort into letting the user customize the material. The site scored in the mid-high range here. Users can create a customized home page. They can also choose to have the information come to them through RSS with more than 20 feeds, ranging from straight news to blogs, Podcasts (both audio and video) or even to their mobile phones (an option not yet available at even some of the higher-tech sites we examined but available on all three cable news sites).
The site’s mobile content is in a section called CNN to Go, which includes news headlines, alerts on breaking news and an audio-video newscast produced specifically for the Web called “Now in the News.” CNN also offers a live audio feed of CNN Radio. What’s more, nearly all of the content on CNN.com is free. That includes all archives, a feature quickly fading on many Web sites. Users don’t even have to register to go through content, but can if they choose. The only fee-based content is CNN Pipeline.
In an attempt to be more interactive, CNN launched a citizen journalism initiative in August 2006. Called “I-Report,” it invites people to contribute news items for possible use on the Web and on the cable channel. On a subsidiary site called CNN Exchange, users can submit their own news reports, photos or video either on specific solicited topics or those of their own choosing. CNN editors then screen the material and decide what to publish. (CNN does not pay for the material).
The user content here stands out among news sites, but some of the more standard ways to invite user input are absent. There is no place on the homepage for users to post comments, enter live discussion, rate stories or take part in a user-dedicated blog. Even the ability to email the author is offered in only the most general capacity.
When it comes to multimedia components of its content, the site landed right in the middle of our ranking scale. It is still heavily based on narrative text—it made up roughly 70% of all the content on the homepage. Pre-recorded video and photography were still the most common other forms, but the site also offered live streams, slide shows and interactive polls. The lead story was almost always made into a “package” of reports offered in at least three different media formats.
When it came to revenue options, the site demands little of users and varies on its use of ads. The only fee-based content is on CNN Pipeline, a broadband channel providing live streaming video, video-on-demand clips and video archives. Its subscription fee is $25 a year or $2.95 a month.6 For the rest of CNN.com, the “cost” to users is putting up with a barrage of ads. When it comes to ads, one visit to the home page displayed 19 separate ads, only 6 of which were self-promotional. But another visit had just six ads, all but one of which was non-CNN related.
Fox News (www.foxnews.com)
Fox News, the star on cable, lags behind the other two cable news channels online. Its Web site has roughly a third the audience of its competitors, though it made efforts to address that lag in 2006.
In November, Roger Ailes appointed Ken LaCorte, Fox Television’s Los Angeles bureau chief, to head Foxnews.com and take over all editorial and design functions. He will report directly to John Moody, vice president of news for the Fox network.
The site was revamped in September 2006 in an effort to streamline the content. It also added new interactive and delivery features. Visitors to the site can now customize it as they like and have the option of getting Fox News headlines on their Blackberry phones and cell phones.7 As a result, the Fox site now earns the highest marks for both the level of customization offered on the site and for the level of multi media offerings, and mid-range marks in all other categories. It has become somewhat more competitive, by those measures, with its rivals.
Even so, Foxnews.com still feeds off the brand identity and strength of the cable channel more than it embodies an identity for itself. For the most part, the site is the Fox News Channel. The brand promoted here are the Fox personalities rather than individual stories, to a much greater degree than CNN or MSNBC.
The top of the page is dedicated to the news headlines, but up-to-the-minute news is clearly not given the same kind of priority as at other cable news sites. It updates every half hour, but there are usually just three or four headlines, which are brief unadorned reports from wires. Each headline stands alone, sometimes with a related wire story link underneath. There is little attempt to create coverage packages with multimedia reports or backgrounders from Fox News. About a quarter of the stories we captured had been augmented somehow by staff members, whose names, unknown to most, appear on the inside (i.e. landing) page at the very bottom of the story. What’s more, the page has just one overall time stamp of the latest update, rather than time stamps on each story as is common at other sites.
After top headlines and other “latest news” from the AP, the page focuses on promoting the Fox brand with content involving Fox hosts and programs. In the upper right corner when we looked in September 2006 were Fox News videos, with a Web-exclusive interview with Senator Barack Obama. The interview was an exclusive that first aired about 10 hours earlier. That same interview also appeared as the lead item in the next section down, “Only on Fox,” along with a link to a science report “Black hole won’t devour Earth, scientists say.” Other subsections on the page also carry the Fox name and previously aired Fox News content: Fox411, Fox Online, FNC iMag, Fox News Talk and individual program listings.
The site does emphasize the use of multimedia more than those of its cable rivals. Just over half of the content was text-based (primarily the wire feed stories) with heavy use of video and still photos but also some live streams, podcast items, polls and interactive graphics. In October 2006, Foxnews.com launched two new video products, collectively called “Fox News Flash.”8 They include two one-minute newscasts, in the morning by Fox & Friends and in the afternoon by the Fox Report with Shepard Smith. Those news segments can also be received, without any need to subscribe to the site, in the form of video podcasts.
The site also targeted mobile phone users starting in January 2007 when it launched a new service called “#FOXN,” the acronym for the digits you dial to access it. It allows customers to listen to live audio of the cable channel’s on-air broadcasts. The service costs $2.99 a month and so far is available only to Cingular wireless service customers right now. It will also offer headlines on demand as well as a call-back service to let users know when a particular program is about to begin on the television channel.9
In promoting its brand, the site places little emphasis on making its users part of that identity, ranking in the low-mid tier of all 38 sites. The personalities on Foxnews.com speak to you much more than you speak to them or even to each other. The site had one of the lowest user-participation scores of any Web site in the study, offering only the most basic ability to e-mail the author of a report along with a poll on how visitors rated the Fed (related to a topic to be discussed on “Your World” later that day). Even the e-mail ability is only occasional, and the e-mail goes not to the staff member who worked on the piece but to the nameless “editor” of that section. There is no way to post comments or rate a story, no live discussion and no user-oriented blog.
When it comes to economics, the main revenue stream on Foxnews.com is commercial ads. Upon entering the site, Foxnews.com visitors get pummeled with ads, the bulk of them for outside commercial enterprises. On average, viewers saw 21 separate ads just on the home page. That puts the site in the top tier of all the ones examined
There is a news archive, at least two years of which is free to users. It includes stories from all the main sections of the site, though video components are quite spotty at this point.
All in all, Foxnews.com is the lesser-nourished sibling of the Fox News Channel. Whether attention and resources begin to even out as the online world expands remains to be seen.
1. See the MSNBC Mobile section on the Web site for details
2. Scott Leith, “CNN to Start Web site for Viewer’s Journalism,” the Miami Herald, August 3, 2006; Also see Online News Ownership section, State of the News Media 2007.
3. Elise Ackerman, “New media making deals with old news providers,” San Jose Mercury News, July 31, 2006
4. As Greg D’Alba, CNN’s head of marketing and sales, was quoted as saying, event marketing gives the CNN brand the opportunity to extend itself beyond the television channel to all digital media, specifically to initiatives like podcasts and video-on-demand.
5. On September 11, 2006 it used CNN Pipeline to stream the TV channel’s coverage of the original terrorist attacks, exemplifying how it can be used for value added content.
6. While Pipeline is fee-based, most digital offshoots and hybrids are typically advertising-supported and therefore free for consumers. Unofficially, many Internet-savvy users have figured out how to download virtually any TV show they want for free. Using file-sharing software, they have set up Web sites where they share digital video recordings. The most prominent of those is YouTube.
7. Jon Fine, “How Fox was Outfoxed,” Business Week, February 13, 2006
8. The two newscasts are also available on the News Corp. sister site MySpace.com and through iTunes. Customers who have video capability on their Cingular, Sprint or Amp’d phones can also get them. Paul J. Gough, “Fox Making News in a Flash,” Hollywood Reporter, October 30, 2006
9. Glen Dickson, “Fox News Channel Provides Audio-to-Go,” Broadcasting & Cable, January 17, 2007