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2021 was another roller coaster year for the television news business. Cable and broadcast news outlets continue to be impacted significantly by the coronavirus epidemic, while contending with coverage of a new administration.
In addition to these challenges, bosses at these cable and broadcast news networks have their hands full building out their respective streaming news products as linear TV ratings decline.
We caught up with several network presidents from across the television news landscape—Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott and Fox News president and executive editor Jay Wallace, CBS News and Stations president and co-head Neeraj Khemlani, and CBS News and Stations president and co-head Wendy McMahon, ABC News president Kim Godwin, Univision News president Leopoldo Gomez, head of Bloomberg global TV and radio Al Mayers, and PBS NewsHour executive producer Sara Just—to learn how their respective networks tackled challenges in 2021, how the explosion of streaming has influenced their work and what we can expect from their brands in 2022.
What was your news division/network’s biggest challenge this year and how did you tackle it?
Gomez: Our biggest challenge was launching a streaming 24/7 news channel without affecting our daily operations and our leadership in broadcast news. It’s called Noticias Univision 24/7. We launched it on Dec. 21 and it’s producing 70 hours of live or updated news content per week (excluding additional pre-taped weekend programs). Starting in February, we will expand to produce 84 hours every week of breaking news, original lifestyle content, opinion and information curated for Spanish-speaking audiences. As its name states, Noticias Univision 24/7 is now available 24 hours a day, seven days a week on PrendeTV, the free, ad-supported streaming home to Univision’s Spanish-language content. The initial results have been even better than expected, surpassing our goals and objectives and attracting new viewers to PrendeTV, Univision’s free streaming service.
Godwin: Producing useful, timely content on all our news programs and platforms requires thousands of people every day to actually go out and interact in a world gripped by a deadly pandemic. Doing that and also keeping our employees safe continued to be our biggest challenge this year. I can’t be more grateful and in awe of the teams here at ABC News for the dedication and deep commitment to informing the public.
Just: Like last year, there is no question that the pandemic continues to be our biggest challenge. Given our small size, we hope never to have to go to our “plans B or C” if we were to have to close our Washington studios due to a Covid outbreak. Therefore, we have been quite conservative in limiting the potential risk for our great crew, reporters and guests in studio.
Khemlani: While we all continued to grapple with the challenges of working remotely, we have embraced new technologies and ways of working that have made us stronger and more technically proficient than ever. One exciting programming challenge was launching a new morning team from a new studio while working remotely–but we did it and we are proud of this new franchise. With the launch of CBS Mornings, we took three different brands that were familiar to our viewers on weekdays, Saturday, and Sunday and merged them under one umbrella. Each broadcast has its unique flavor, but they are linked by exquisite storytelling and unmatched original reporting that is the hallmark of CBS News. CBS Mornings delivers the interviews everyone is talking about and breaking news, combined with in-depth pieces on the most pressing global stories.
The broadcast also proves feature storytelling transcends all categories of news. We have married hard news weekday morning programming with the eclectic, informative and heart warming pieces and profiles that are standard on CBS Saturday Morning and CBS Sunday Morning.
Relaunching mornings with the iconic trumpet melody is one nod to how we’re tying mornings together into this special franchise, unique to CBS.
Mayers: Our biggest challenge was getting our global team safely back into our offices. Our team works from three major media hubs in New York, London and Hong Kong with additional support in Sydney, Singapore, Dubai, Washington DC and San Francisco. Each country
had different rules and timetables we had to follow. Mike Bloomberg supported every imaginable safety effort, from custom-built Plexiglas visors between desks, enhanced HVAC to recirculate air quickly, weekly on-site testing, foot pedals on doors and regular
deep cleaning of all office and studio space. A true first class effort from a great company. I am happy to say we were successful keeping our team members safe and having them return to our offices.
McMahon: Coming off all of the Covid-related challenges we faced in 2020, our people definitely needed opportunities to collectively take deep breaths, recharge and reset. And then, starting on Jan. 6, this year has been every bit as challenging. Through it all, though, we have stayed close to our teams and made sure they have felt supported and expressed our gratitude for all of the incredible work that’s been done.
Neeraj and I are extremely proud of how our colleagues at CBS News and Stations have risen to the occasion and collectively seized the opportunity to unite our network and local stations teams—at a time when the opportunity to super serve our global, national and local audiences has never been greater. It has been exciting to identify the unique strengths of each organization, leverage technology and data to modernize our operations and encourage collaboration and content sharing. We are well on our way to realizing the full impact of our now unified organization.
Wallace: From a news standpoint, navigating the situation in Afghanistan. We’ve had many teams of journalists on the ground throughout the nearly 20-year war, but the speed at which Kabul fell was surprising and unsettling for even the most seasoned of them. Balancing the rush to report on the fast-changing developments and keeping our assets safe was of the utmost importance–not to mention assisting many of our longtime fixers who needed our help to get them and their families out of country as the Taliban closed in.
What will be the biggest difference between your news division/network in 2022 compared to 2021?
Gomez: The biggest difference in 2022 vs 2021 is that we will be producing more hours of news programming than ever before in Univision’s history. It also means that we will be able to cover more breaking news. There are time limitations on broadcast TV, but our new streaming channel allows us to be always with our viewers and inform them continuously. Having more airtime also means being more agile, having a faster response time and more space for interviews, opinions, debates and innovative content formats.
Godwin: The strength of ABC News lies in our strong, relatable and reliable content. Next year you are going to see us expand our footprint and reach on our digital and streaming platforms, continuing to engage new audiences.
Just: We are a growing production center. Last year we produced more original podcasts as well as several special primetime programs. We will have more of that next year but NewsHour is also expanding further in the new year. NewsHour is taking over production of WETA’s weekly political analysis program, Washington Week. We are also taking over production the PBS Weekend News program starting in April, which will be anchored by our newest member of the team, Geoff Bennett. We are looking forward to growing into a 7-day-a-week newsroom and a stronger operation to support our daily broadcast, digital and social production, as well as breaking news coverage and special events programming.
Khemlani: As we head into the New Year we’re focused on bringing a modern approach to newsgathering, which will enable us to play to our strengths in delivering exclusive and original reporting. For example, CBS News in 2022 will have a centralized newsgathering operation under [CBS News evp] Ingrid Ciprian-Matthews, that brings all of our newsgathering efforts across linear and digital—and all of our domestic and international bureaux—under one unit for the first time. We are innovating across the division from newsgathering to storytelling to technology.
We are also working more closely with local stations than ever before. Ultimately, our global newsgathering operation—coupled with the local reporting and storytelling from CBS Stations—will enhance our coverage on every show and platform including our new CBS News streaming service relaunching early 2022.
There is untapped opportunity as we scale across our local to global resources that we’re really excited about … We’re just getting started.
Mayers: We learned to look at everything we do and ask if there is a better way to do it. During the height of the pandemic, we were forced to think way out of the box in order to keep delivering our content to our customers. We rethought everything from workflow to on-air presentation. We redesigned our studios, leveraging technology and capitalizing on the creativity of a global workforce and the power that comes from 2,700 journalists working together. As 2021 comes to a close, we have proven we can work through adversity, making our product better for our customers.
McMahon: You will see a huge difference at CBS News and Stations as we cover big stories and events such as the midterms as a united organization. Our new structure is allowing us to tell the stories at the community level with our local teams, while providing unmatched analysis and coverage at the network level. The breadth and depth of our coverage will be distributed across our local and network platforms and streaming channels.
One of our top priorities for our stations in 2022 will be a major commitment to community journalism and making neighborhoods the newsrooms of the future. We are hiring senior leaders in each of our newsrooms who will play an EPIC (Executive Producer of Impacting Communities) role in leading the way for us. Our local teams will be doing much more to hold the powerful accountable, effect positive change, take on the most pressing topics of our time and to seek solutions. We will also do more to introduce our audiences to people they may otherwise never know about—and showcase them as champions and change-makers.
Scott: Our technological innovations. We have been investing in our newsgathering operations, newsroom, and studios to ensure we can get the story, no matter the obstacles—whether it’s [Fox News correspondent] Bill Melugin providing critical aerial coverage of the situation on the border from our Fox Flight team or Fox Weather’s exclusive 3D radar, the investment and innovations we will bring to our platforms will continue to enhance our enterprising news product. And the midterm elections—we had critical regional races this year, but the biggest difference will be the fact that 2022 is another election year and we’ll be allocating resources to ensure we are covering all sides and angles leading up to the November election.
How did streaming change your focus this year, and what are your plans for 2022?
Gomez: Noticias Univision 24/7 aims to serve a broad audience. Our average viewer in broadcast TV is a generation younger than the average viewer of our English-language counterparts, but with our news streaming channel we are focused on reaching both broader and younger audiences. To do so, we are also opening opportunities for young and diverse journalists that bring new and different styles to inform Latinos. As the number one and most trusted source of news for Hispanics, we will expand our legacy into streaming and grow our reach on every platform. Noticias Univision 24/7 complements and amplifies everything we do on broadcast and it allows us to inform our audience wherever they might be, from their TV to their phones and everywhere in between. Our plan for 2022 is to continue strengthening our commitment to serve the Hispanic community through quality journalism—and bring our undisputed leadership in broadcast TV to news streaming in Spanish.
Godwin: Streaming hasn’t changed our focus as much as it has opened up another path to reach viewers in real time wherever they are, whenever they need us and on whatever device. News cycles never follow the clock or the calendar, so having additional ways to share coverage of the biggest news events of our lives, is really an invaluable tool for us.
Just: We have seen our streaming audience on YouTube grow tremendously this year, where we stream a variety of events each day. We have recently hired our first full time digital anchor/correspondent in Nicole Ellis. Nicole has already anchored streaming events for us, such as Colin Powell’s funeral, and there will be more events and original streaming productions coming in 2022. We want to meet the audience interested in PBS News journalism wherever they are looking for reliable, factual, contextual news and analysis.
Khemlani: Streaming is the tip of the spear in reaching audiences where they are—and into the future. In 2022, we’ll be relaunching our national streaming service in a new studio and under one unified CBS News brand so that viewers can expect the same CBS News experience across every platform. The new CBS News streaming service will bring together live and breaking news on a national, local and global level with long form content from brands and franchises our audiences already know and trust—an incredible offering that unlocks the power of CBS News and is reflective of our new combined organization. We’re excited to be integrating network IP and talent in ways that were never done when the divisions were separate.
Mayers: Streaming has always been part of our content strategy and in 2021 we accelerated our reach and engagement for BTV across the OTT and connected-device space. We have seen strong and consistent engagement globally on Samsung and LG, with growth on more recently launched platforms such as Amazon FireTV News. We also have experienced increased engagement on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook with select livestreamed shows and dayparts.
McMahon: In 2021, we launched additional local streaming channels to expand our overall audience, produced tens of thousands of hours of content outside of our newscasts to cover everything from gavel-to-gavel coverage of local trials in Chicago and Minneapolis, to back-to-back high school playoff games in Boston.
In 2022, our local CBS News OTT channels will expand from 12 to 14 with the addition of Miami and Detroit. Earlier this month, we announced our plans to adopt a streaming-first approach as we seize the unprecedented opportunity to build a large-market local newsroom completely from scratch in Detroit, where WWJ-TV will be getting a full-scale news department for the first time in its 26-year history as a CBS-owned station. CBS News Detroit will stream 137 hours of live local news coverage per week, with WWJ-TV simulcasting 40 hours per week in traditional early morning, midday, early event and late news time periods.
Scott: Streaming didn’t change our focus, it added to our breadth of coverage. We now have eight thriving platforms, each of which serve as a complement to each other without cannibalizing viewership. As a result, our divisions are seeing growth across the board, with Fox Weather debuting as the No. 1 app with 1 million downloads in its first week, Fox Nation seeing 40% increases in subscriber base, while Fox News Channel continued as the juggernaut in cable. In 2022, we will continue with our strategy, allocating resources to ensure we are covering the major breaking news stories across our linear networks, drilling down on the topics our viewers care about through digital, audio, Nation and Fox News Books–which is three for three in bestsellers since we debuted the platform, while continuing to expand our new Fox Weather platform.
Wallace: Streaming doesn’t change the focus of our approach to news, nor should it. News happens in real time and our job is to cover all aspects of it and breaking developments in the moment. No matter the platform, we are out the door and aggressively reporting stories as eyewitnesses for our viewers. Where streaming has helped is on the backend–the added bandwidth at times allows us to flesh out pieces for digital, linear and all our DTC platforms.