By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
All three networks waded more deeply into the online world in 2008, although once again much of that was through partnership and acquisition rather than from building new original content.
NBC used its costly broadcast rights to the Olympics to showcase what it hopes will become a multimedia model of the future with a video-rich website devoted to coverage of the Beijing Games. CBS acquired the technology news website CNet and folded its digital operations into its CBS Interactive division. And ABC sought to extend its appeal to younger viewers by creating five digital bureaus at top journalism schools staffed with student journalists who will report for both digital and broadcast platforms.
All three networks sought to use the driving news story of 2008, the presidential election, to capture audiences online. They produced online-only newscasts of the conventions and election night, ramped up video content on their sites and continued alliances with other media companies that could help attract the ever-elusive younger viewers.
NBC News made three key investments in 2008: a redesigned video-centered website for the Nightly News, an exhaustive 2008 Summer Olympics website and a number of election-related additions to the popular MSNBC.com website.
In January 2008, NBC News launched Nightly.MSNBC.com, a “microsite” within MSNBC.com that is devoted solely to the NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams. The new site puts a singular focus on video and consciously avoids the text that dominated its former version and that still exists on most news websites.
The site allows web users to see all the individual story packages and interviews broadcast on the Nightly News. It also, however, provides longer Web-only video that could not be aired given time restrictions on the television broadcast.
“The goal a richer, deeper visual experience that is more akin to broadcast,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, vice president for digital news at NBC. “I think that’s a better way to present the evening news online, and it’s an approach our competitors haven’t taken.”1
The biggest online investment of the year came in the network’s coverage of the 2008 Summer Olympics. As sole U.S. carrier of the games, NBC worked to take full advantage of the capabilities of the Internet. This included the creation of the microsite, www.2008.NBCOlympics.com. which provided over 2,000 hours of streaming video of highlights, replays and even live events.
Viewers could, as an example, visit the cycling area of the site to grab the latest news updates and watch video of full-length events, replays and highlights. The idea was to give viewers more to watch than the handful of most popular events aired on the nightly broadcasts.
The Internet is “allowing people to create their own broader Olympics experience,” said Jon Gibs, the vice president for media analytics at Nielsen Online.2
Viewers embraced the medium. At an average of 4.3 million unique visitors a day, NBC pulled in more than double the traffic of the 2006 Winter Olympics and 2004 Summer Olympics combined.
NBC also used the website to field-test a comprehensive way of tracking viewership across television, online and mobile platforms. Networks have long had to piece together television audience numbers and online and mobile consumption.
To tackle this problem, NBC used the Olympics website to test its total audience measurement index, or TAMI, which summarizes users’ viewership across television channels, websites, mobile programming and video-on-demand (see discussion in Network News Digital Trends ).
With or without the Olympics, NBC’s main news website, MSNBC.com, fared well in 2008, overtaking Yahoo News as the most-visited news website, according to Nielsen Online. In 2008 the site averaged 38.9 million unique visitors per month. That was about three times as many visitors drawn by each of its rival network websites. The site has the advantage of drawing traffic from the MSN portal, the home page for millions of Internet users. MSNBC.com is a joint venture of Microsoft, which owns the MSN portal, and NBC.
Average Monthly Unique Visitors
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Source: Borrell Associates, Inc.
MSNBC.com also ramped up for the 2008. It retained partnerships with two print news organizations – the New York Times and National Journal, a weekly magazine for Washington insiders – to boost its coverage. MSNBC.com added NBC News political director and chief White House correspondent Chuck Todd to its First Read blog.3
MSNBC.com is the umbrella site for the NBC News family, which includes the Today Show, NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams, Dateline, Meet the Press and MSNBC’s cable news programming.
The site’s headquarters are in Redmond, Wash., and news is produced there, as well as in New York, and Washington. As of early December 2008, it employed more than 200 staffers, according to its website.
CBS turned to social-networking technology and blogs to try to boost viewership of its chief news website in 2008 and made a major acquisition that it hopes will give it a greater foothold in the online market.
CBSNews.com is the website for the network’s six television news programs: CBS Evening News With Katie Couric, 60 Minutes, Face the Nation, CBS Sunday Morning, the Early Show and 48 Hours. It also produces original content not aired on television.
In 2008, the site averaged 10.1 million unique visitors monthly, making it the 13th-most-visited news site that year. That places CBS News third, or last, among network news websites.
In 2008, CBS News, like MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com, formed a Web partnership to enhance its political coverage, though in a way different than the other networks. CBS teamed up with Digg, a popular site on which members post and rank news stories and other items. CBSNews.com users were able to share political content with registered Digg users, as well as to see Digg’s election-news headlines.
In addition the main CBS News content, the website hosts a number of blogs. As of January 2009, the website featured a front page menu item for its seven blogs, including three on politics and world events that are updated regularly. A technology blog is also regularly updated, but three of them – one on investigative reports, another featuring political cartoons and one on travel – are refreshed only intermittently.
The News Media Yellow Book, published by Leadership Directories, included staff listings for four of CBS News’ blogs: Couric & Co., Primary Source, Public Eye and Tech Talk. According to the Leadership Directories’ online database, as of December 2008 there were 22 editors and contributors to these four blogs.
These staff listings, however, are self-reported and may not list of all staff members who contribute to or edit CBS News’ blogs.
One of CBS’s biggest online investments in 2008 was not tied to news. It bought CNet.com, the most-visited website for coverage of consumer electronics, for $1.8 billion. It placed the acquisition at the center of a reorganized CBS Interactive division. CBS combined all of its existing digital outlets, which had been part of its television segment, with the newly acquired CNet websites.4
“We view this as a major step, largely because of the advertising opportunities,” CBS Interactive CEO Quincy Smith said. Neil Ashe, CEO of CNet, called the deal a “perfect marriage of premium online content with premium on-air content.” 5
The addition of CNet fits in with the CBS goal of capturing larger audiences for its broadcast material and digital content by tailoring it for the Web. As of January 2009, CBS websites now include sites devoted to news, technology, business, entertainment and sports.
As part of its purchase of CNet, CBS acquired the rights to domain name TV.com, which it redesigned as a video destination for its current and archived programming. This will put it into greater competition with Hulo and other sites, but CBS has said it hoped to add a layer of interactivity – encouraging user interaction – to attract traffic.
“In the past, it’s been a place to get information,” said Anthony Soohoo, who oversees entertainment and lifestyle categories for CBS Interactive. “If we add more video content to the site, we believe it can drive more community.”
The new interactive division also distributes entertainment and news content to more than 300 partner websites that make up the “CBS audience network” but are not owned by the company. The websites carry the content, and CBS sells ads and shares revenue with the partner. As of January 2009 the audience network included Microsoft, AOL, and Joost as well as social networking sites like Bebo.6
In June, Yahoo joined the network. Yahoo, like other CBS partners, got access to CBS’s extensive online catalog of entertainment content, which boasts more full episodes and hours of network programming than any other broadcast television network. The CBS content will be added to Yahoo’s programming lineup, which also includes programming from NBC, Fox and more than 15 cable networks. CBS also continued to produce short-form video clips.
CBS’ EyeLab division, set up in 2007, produces 20 to 50 clips each week – mostly teasers for CBS programs — and distributes them to CBS audience network members. The idea is to use short, punchy and often comical clips to capture the attention of potential viewers who would otherwise avoid network programming.
“Recognizing that short-form content is what our viewers want online, we’re committed to bringing CBS fans short, easy-to-digest clips — which they can take and mash up, rework, re-edit and, no doubt, inspire us with their creativity,” said Anthony Zuiker, the executive producer and creator of the top-rated crime show CSI. “Using the Web as a direct engagement platform with those who care the most about the show is a perfect way to bring the TV experience online and in turn, to learn from fans.”
ABC News launched three digital initiatives in 2008 aimed at making its news reporting more efficient while creating more Web-friendly content to monetize. The network partnered with journalism schools to enlist graduate students as student reporters for the network, expanded its Web-only news programs and began to digitize its archive of television news content, a move that would make it easier for reporters to access historical footage.
ABC News set up digital bureaus at five universities around the country – the University of Texas at Austin, Arizona State University, Syracuse University, the University of Florida and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.7
Student journalists for the bureaus were to be selected by professors and the network and then paid to produce regional feature and breaking news stories for various ABC News broadcasts and websites.
ABC News President David Westin said in a statement, “These college bureaus will extend the newsgathering reach of ABC News throughout the country. In addition, they will enable us to nurture bright young journalism students, giving them hands-on training from some of the most seasoned news professionals in the business and the opportunity to see their work appear on ABC News platforms.”8
ABC also began to digitize its archive of television news content, a massive undertaking that will serve as a resource for ABC journalists as well as a potential revenue source. Digitizing the archive could also make it easier for ABC News to license content to other outlets and earn money from those willing to pay for some of its past coverage. The whole licensing process could be streamlined and automated on the Internet. “In theory,” Westin said, “you should be able to have the digital archive up on the website.”9
ABC News also made greater use of its online-only broadcast, ABC News Now, particularly for extensive political coverage of the presidential campaign. During the conventions, ABC News Now offered live gavel-to-gavel coverage of the proceedings starting at 5 p.m. daily. Sam Donaldson and Rick Klein, author of The Note, a daily ABC News blog, hosted the coverage. On Election Day, News Now partnered with Yahoo to stream its video footage on Yahoo’s websites.10
The election was also a major emphasis of the network’s user-generated video section, i-Caught.
ABCNews.com averaged 13.1 million unique visitors per month for the year in the United States, making it the eighth-most popular news website, according to data compiled by Nielsen Online. ABCNews.com serves as the main page for its morning, evening and prime-time news programming, including Good Morning America, World News, 20/20, Nightline and This Week.
The ABC News website hosts 22 blogs, but only 3 are updated regularly by staffers.
1. PEJ Interview with Mark Lukasiewicz, December 1, 2008
2. Paul J. Gough, “NBC partners with print reporters for ’08 race,” the Hollywood Reporter, July 17, 2007.
3. In January 2008, CNBC, which is also owned by General Electric, announced that it, too, had agreed to a content-sharing deal with the New York Times. Richard Pérez-Peña, “Times and CNBC to Share Material on Web Sites,” the New York Times, January 7, 2008.
4. “NBC News/msnbc.com and the New York Times/NYTimes.com Announce Collaboration on Political Coverage and National Political Content for the 2008 Campaign,” New York Times Company press release, July 30, 2007.
5. Brian Stelter, “MSNBC to Acquire a Chattier News Site,” the New York Times, October 8, 2007.
6. Michael Learmonth, “Network launches user-generated video show,” Variety, May 28, 2007
7. “comScore Media Metrix Releases Top 50 U.S. Web Rankings for December,” comScore press release, January 15, 2008.
8. Brian Stelter, “ ABC News and Facebook in Joint Effort to Bring Viewers Closer to Political Coverage,” the New York Times, November 26, 2007.
9. “ABC News Joins Forces With Facebook,” ABCNews.com, December 18, 2007.
10. Brian Stelter, “ABC Reshapes the Evening News for the Web,” the New York Times, October 12, 2007.
11. Bill Carter, “Palin Effect on Ratings Only Modest for CBS,” New York Times, September 30, 2008
12. Ken Doctor, “Couric’s Palin Interviews Show Ad Metrics Are a-SKU,” Content Bridges, October 7, 2008
13. Ken Doctor, “Couric’s Palin Interviews Show Ad Metrics Are a-SKU,” Content Bridges, October 7, 2008
14. David Bauder, “Fey’s Palin skits mark turning point of TV viewing,” Associated Press October 19, 2008
15. David Bauder, “Fey’s Palin skits mark turning point of TV viewing,” Associated Press October 19, 2008