CBS News president David Rhodes is on a roll. Network insiders say Rhodes, with his mantra of “real news,” has managed to swiftly and efficiently begin reshaping a network news division that, at times, has seemed as dated as the vintage news cameras encased in lucite on display in the lobby of the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street–a testament to the network’s deep, proud roots, but not exactly a signal to visitors that the network was a part of–or even, perhaps, aware of–the massive shift in media that is disrupting the industry.
Rhodes led the launch of “CBS This Morning,” with a mission of letting “Today” and “GMA” fight amongst themselves while CBS stuck to the news. “We’re not good at cooking, we don’t put on a good concert. I think maybe for too long we tried to be something that we’re not, and it wasn’t working,” Rhodes told The Los Angeles Times two years ago. But this has worked. At the end of 2014, “CTM” was the only morning show to post fourth-quarter growth, up 6 percent. It was also CBS’ best delivery in the time period in 21 years.
And last November, CBS News quietly unveiled perhaps its boldest push toward the future, CBSN, the network’s 24-hour, 7-day-a-week advertiser supported streaming news channel. The launch, after months of planning and rehearsal, was clean and glitch-free. This week, CBS announced the streaming service was ranked first among news channels on Roku, the streaming service that brings channels like CBSN, Fox News and SkyNews to connected TVs. “People are finding us,” said Rhodes in an interview with TVNewser. “I think we’re connecting with the audience we expected, (and) that’s a pretty significant audience.”
While CBSN surely benefited from sampling in its early days, it has converted some into loyal viewers, with fully 88 percent of returning viewers watching on connected TVs tuning in to CBSN several times each week. “Connected devices are a big opportunity for us,” said Rhodes. They represent about a third of the audience, and are among CBSN’s most engaged viewers, consuming half of all streams and spending the longest amount of time per stream. “Dwell times in connected televisions do very well,” he says.
Rhodes, who started his career in 1996 at Fox News Channel and later re-launched Bloomberg TV in 2009, knows a bit about technical rollouts. Compared to a cable launch, Rhodes says CBSN benefited from emerging technology–it was easier, and far less expensive, to get it up and running. “A lot of the media narrative about technology has been about its potential to disrupt, but it also presents opportunity. It brings down the cost of covering news.”
Created largely in-house, without the need to hire additional on-air talent, the cost of launching CBSN was “modest” compared to the cable launches of the 1990s. It’s also provided a new platform for CBS News journalists, who have for years had to fight for the small number of minutes available on the “CBS Evening News,” meaning correspondents have been eager to bring their reporting to CBSN. “People internally are as frustrated as anybody when they can’t get that reporting through the smaller aperture of the scheduled broadcast.”
CBS News executives have seen viewership spikes for CBSN around major news events, including Ferguson, the cafe attack in Sydney, and the State of the Union. “They come for news,” said Rhodes. “That’s encouraging because that’s what we do.” So CBSN is fitting neatly into Rhodes’ overall mission of real news.
Can’t viewers get real news–or at least coverage of big, breaking news–elsewhere? Isn’t that cable’s bread-and-butter? Rhodes says these days, not so much. “Not everybody is programming into (major news) as well as they could be. We thought there was an audience for spot news coverage in these breaking events. And the data show that there is such an audience.”
An audience that, despite having 24-hour cable news channels, doesn’t always find, well, news. “The perceived wisdom is that people can get this kind of news coverage anywhere. Except not really.”
But CBSN doesn’t have slickly produced documentary programming in prime time, and it doesn’t fill weekend hours with true crime or “world’s most outrageous videos.” While that kind of programming can do very well drawing an audience, the catch is deciding to interrupt the shows when real news happens. “It’s hard for them to make a decision to disrupt,” said Rhodes. “Not as hard for us. On a platform like this, there’s no worry about that. We’re hoping those events happen.”
Building on those events–and CBSN’s existing audience–is the focus in 2015. Part of that job involves rolling out additional distribution products, including an Android app, but key is social media. CBS’ rich heritage–Murrow’s picture still hangs just inside the doors at the Broadcast Center–has resulted in CBS veering away from the kinds of stories that can truly trend.
Insiders at Facebook say for years, CBS has lagged behind ABC and NBC. But recently, under Rhodes, CBS has shown a commitment to doing better. “CBS This Morning” has been aggressive with social media, and CBSN is working to streamline its social media efforts and build an identity around real news, always on.
“The company is making an investment in this,” said Rhodes. And that means focusing on doing one thing well–news–without worrying about attracting an audience on a quiet night in August. “We’re a news organization. We’re focused on how to cover news events, we’re not focused on what to do in the absence of news events.”