Low-Key, Glitch-Free Launch of CBSN

By Mark Joyella 

CBSN2

It didn’t look like launch day at CBSN, and that’s a big achievement. Freed from the burden of launch day hoopla and high expectations, CBS News turned on its brand new live streaming news channel Thursday, and did so without a hitch. The motto is “Always On,” and for the bosses on West 57th Street, getting it on and keeping it on without a meltdown–not so much as a hiccup in the hours we watched–is a win for CBS News and the digital gurus at CBS Interactive.

Will it work? Who knows. But the potential is there, if CBS is willing to give CBSN time to evolve, experiment, and find its own pace and style. On day one, there’s little flash, no rush, and plenty of potential. It’s not really something you can open in a window on your desktop and leave on during your workday, unless you’re okay with plenty of repetition. While CBS promises the 24/7 network will provide “live, anchored coverage 15 hours each weekday,” CBSN operates on an hour-long wheel format, so it repeats at the top of the hour. The format is dropped for breaking news, or, as happened this morning, a Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House, or this afternoon with Rep. John Boehner’s first post-election news conference.

Perhaps CBSN’s greatest strength is the deep well of talent at CBS News. The network has strong journalists–CBSN had David Martin live from the Pentagon with breaking news on a Khorasan bomber killed in an airstrike, and James Brown live by phone from Cincinnati with new developments in the Ray Rice hearings.

But CBS also has an amazing vault–eight decades of unparalleled journalism, ready to be pulled and exploited in a brand new way by CBSN. A launch day segment called “CBS Milestone” featured a look at the history of news-making interviews on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” The challenge for CBSN will be bringing those resources into play while attracting younger viewers.

The story selection at CBSN is telling: a report on Las Vegas, and the city’s efforts to “shed Sinatra” and lure “next gen party kids”; a report on the arrest of a man accused of posting pictures of his murdered girlfriend to 4chan; a conversation with CBS-owned CNET’s Jeff Bakalar on chat apps and a controversy in the latest edition of the “Call of Duty” video game. CBS wants millenials, and believes CBSN, with its watch-on-any-device flexibility and post-to-Facebook shareability will resonate with young people who would never, ever, sit down at 6:30 and watch the “CBS Evening News.”

How will those “next gen” viewers respond to “CBS Milestone”, which begins with black-and-white film and runs for more than four minutes? Odds are they’ll skip it, clicking the CBSN menu bar and selecting another story, like the five minute report on the Hillsong Church–a megachurch that, like CBS, is trying new ways of bringing young people into the flock.

Getting those millenials to sample CBSN will take time. But CBS, under CEO Les Moonves, has shown remarkable focus–bringing CBS primetime to number one among total viewers and viewers 18-49, and then making all of CBS’ programs–and much of its extensive archive–available on demand. CBSN fits neatly into that vision.

It’s tempting to dismiss CBSN as not different enough, not flashy enough, to cut through the glut of news options begging for young eyeballs. But you could easily say the same thing about shows like “Big Bang Theory” and “NCIS.” They’ll never get the buzz of “Breaking Bad” or “Walking Dead,” but CBS doesn’t need that. They work. In that fashion, CBSN could quietly grow into a very important part of CBS News’ future.

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