What is happening to television news?

TelevisionFor a long time, television seemed to remain resilient to the rise of digital media. In many countries, television viewing increased, as did industry revenues, even as digital media disrupted publishing and music.

For years, many warned that the digital disruption of television was imminent. (Myself included.)

In a new Reuters Institute report written with Richard Sambrook (Professor of Journalism at Cardiff, former Head of BBC News), I argue that we are now seeing the beginning of that disruption. The fact that people have cried wolf before does not mean that there are no wolfes.

Richard and I outline our main argument in a piece on the Nieman Lab here. The full report is available for free as PDF or HTML.

The Executive Summary is below.

Executive Summary

In this report, we analyse what is happening to television news. We map recent changes in traditional television viewing, the rise of online video, and a range of examples of how different organisations are working with new forms of television-like news developed for a digital environment.

We show how recent years have seen significant declines in traditional television viewing in technologically developed markets, and a rapid rise in online video viewing driven by video-sharing sites, video-on-demand services, and the integration of video into social media sites. Television is still an important medium, and will remain so for years to come, but it will not be the dominant force it was in the second half of the twentieth century.

Television viewing in countries like the UK and the US have declined by 3 to 4% per year on average since 2012. These declines are directly comparable to the declines in print newspaper circulation in the 2000s and if compounded over ten years will result in an overall decline in viewing of 25 to 30%. The average audience of many television news programmes is by now older than the average audience of many print newspapers.

The decline in viewing among younger people is far more pronounced both for television viewing in general and for television news specifically, meaning that the loyalty and habits of older viewers prop up overall viewing figures and risk obscuring the fact that television news is rapidly losing touch with much of the population.

There are no reasons to believe that a generation that has grown up with and enjoys digital, on-demand, social, and mobile video viewing across a range of connected devices will come to prefer live, linear, scheduled programming tied to a single device just because they grow older. This raises wider questions about how sustainable the broad public interest role broadcast news has played in many countries over the last 60 years is.

Television news is still a widely used and important source of news, and will remain so for many older people for years to come, but if television news providers do not react to the decline in traditional television viewing and the rise of online video – in particular on-demand, distributed, and mobile viewing – they risk irrelevance. The full implications of the changes we identify here will not be felt immediately, as current viewers will continue to watch for years to come. But the challenge needs to be recognised now and acted on if television news providers want to reinvent themselves and find an audience that increasingly prefers digital media to television, and increasingly embraces on-demand, distributed, and mobile video distributed online.

Many different kinds of news organisations, including legacy broadcasters, print legacy media, and a range of digital pure players, are experimenting with different kinds of television-like and online video news to reach audiences, especially younger people. We review some of what they are trying to do below and show how a limited number of new players, most notably video-on-demand providers like Netflix and Amazon Prime, and platforms like Facebook and YouTube, are currently leading the move towards a video-enabled internet and that, while there are impressive experiments with long-form, in-depth content, shorter clips, and various modes of distribution, no one seems to have found the right recipe for online video news or IPTV news. None of the platforms and on-demand services that dominate online video focus on news.

The fact that no one has found the right recipe for doing online video news in this rapidly changing environment takes nothing away from the urgency of adapting to it. Television as a platform may well be about to face disruption on a scale comparable to what printed newspapers have experienced over the last decade. Television news providers face this transition with many strengths, including well-known brands, creative talent, and deep archives of quality content, but they also risk being constrained by their legacy organisation and culture.

Television news providers who wish to reach younger audiences, adapt to this changing environment, and remain relevant will therefore need to continue to invest in innovation and experimentation, and can learn much from established insights into organisational traits that enable innovation in digital news.

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