Skip to Content View Previous Reports

Digital

Network TV
By the Project For Excellence In Journalism
Digital

In 2009, the broadcast networks’ news divisions increasingly looked to the Web, video platforms and mobile devices for new sources of revenue.

ABC and CBS sought to catch up to NBC in the digital arena, and put a lot of emphasis on bolstering online video capabilities with new technology and partnerships to distribute content, including news.

Audience

Internet audience measurement is still something of a frontier, and there is no single — or agreed upon — way of counting traffic to particular websites.

Data from two of the top audience measurement companies, Hitwise and Nielsen Online indicate the websites belonging to the broadcast networks lagged behind those of cable as online destinations for news. Of the three networks, only NBC is among the top five news websites in rankings from Nielsen Online (No. 2) and Hitwise (No. 3). (ComScore, the other firm most often looked to for Web audience analytics, was in the process of revising its methodology and was unable to provide comparable data for this report).

MSNBC.com, operated jointly by NBC News and cable channels MSNBC and CNBC, is promoted on both a major broadcast network and cable news channels, and also draws traffic from Microsoft’s MSN portal, the home page for millions of Internet users.1 It is also headquartered on the campus of Microsoft in Redmond, Wash., and is a joint operation with that company. MSNBC consistently ranks among the top four websites for news, rivaling CNN, AOL and just behind Yahoo.

While MSNBC.com placed similarly high on rankings made by both Nielsen and Hitwise, there were bigger differences in the respective rankings of ABC News and CBS News.

Network News Website Audiences in 2009
Hitwise Nielsen Online
Website Rank Market Share Website Rank Unique Audience
MSNBC.com 3 3.34% MSNBC Dig. Network 2 35.57 million
ABCNews.com 24 0.42 ABC News Dig. Net. 8 10.33 million
CBSNews.com 35 0.26 CBS News Dig. Net. 19 5.00 million

Source: Hitwise, Nielsen Online

Nielsen Online ranked the ABCNews.com as number eight among news and information websites in 2009, just behind FoxNews.com. It was followed by washingtonpost.com at number nine.

Hitwise’s data painted a different picture: It ranked ABCNews.com as the number 24 news and information website of the year, behind associatedcontent.com, an online publisher and distributor of original content at number 23, and followed by buzz.yahoo.com at 25, an aggregator of the popular content including news.

Similarly, the CBSNews.com network of websites fared better in the Nielsen rankings (No. 19) than in Hitwise’s (No. 35).

Why the disparity between the two companies’ measurements for ABC and CBS? One factor is that Nielsen’s measurements bundle several ABC News and CBS News website into one grouping, while Hitwise keeps them separate. Thus the family of ABC News websites is ranked higher in Nielsen, while the single domain of ABC News.com ranked lower by Hitwise.

Another difference between Hitwise and Nielsen is that Hitwise measures traffic through Internet access companies, while Nielsen does it through panels of users. Many observers argue that Nielsen’s numbers may undercount traffic during the day, as a consequence of many businesses not allowing Nielsen software on their company servers. (For more on how Internet measurement companies track audience, see the backgrounder.)

Online Video

The trailing networks’ focus on video throughout the year hints at the potential of the emerging form.

Online video advertising is small, representing just over $1 billion in spending in 2009. The category, however, grew by 40% from 2008, while most other forms of online advertising stayed flat or fell.2 But the share of that figure for network TV (or the news divisions themselves) is unknown; the market research firm eMarketer does not break out this category of online ad spending for network platforms.

According to one set of projections, by eMarketer, online video ads are set reach $5 billion by 2014.3

One growing form of online video advertising, the pre-roll ad, seems particularly promising for the networks news divisions. Pre-roll ads are online video commercials that appear prior to a video. It is one of the few types of online advertising that cannot be bypassed by consumers and for which marketers can guarantee viewers have watched.4

As a result, even though audiences for online video are still minute, advertisers are paying a premium for pre-roll advertising. In fact, costs for that form of advertising rival that of commercials on network television in primetime.5

Thus, networks sell pre-roll ads for videos with a small, though steadily growing viewership, a challenge for companies used to higher volumes.  “Broadcast networks think in millions, not in thousands,” Andrew Tyndall of ADT Research, who is a consultant to this report, told Broadcasting & Cable in June 2009. “They don’t have the audience for those things, but they have the sales force and they have the technology.”6

ABC and CBS were especially active in this area in 2009, bolstering online video offerings on their news websites and pushing news content onto additional online video channels. But for now, the Web operations of their news divisions do not generate enough revenue to support full-scale professional journalism operations or bring a profit to their parent companies. In 2009, almost exclusively, existing news staffers produced limited Web-only offerings.

ABC News

ABC expanded its video distribution via the Web with a number of key partnerships.
In April 2009, Disney, ABC’s parent company, became a part of owner of the video site Hulu, joining NBC parents General Electric and Vivendi as well as  News Corp., the owner of Fox.

The New York Times reported that Disney gave Hulu a $25 million marketing credit, that the website can use to advertise itself during ABC’s broadcast shows, in exchange for 28% stake in of the company.7 That stake is slightly less than that of News Corp. and GE, according to the report.

ABC’s Hulu deal was for the distribution of full-length programs, not short-form clips. Originally geared toward ABC’s entertainment programs, the network expanded its offerings in February 2010 to news, including World News Tonight, Good Morning America, Nightline, This Week, Primetime, 20/20 and ABC News Now.8

News offerings on Hulu from NBC News are limited to specials and documentaries, excluding the news division’s most popular broadcast programming. (Fox does not make full-length videos of popular shows like Hannity and the O’Reilly Factor available on Hulu.)
Hulu was the third-largest video site behind YouTube and the Fox Interactive Media network in 2009 and hosts a wide variety of recorded content from high-profile content partners. The site’s exclusivity — Hulu has no user-generated content — has made it a favorite among broadcasters.

Disney also struck a deal in 2009 with YouTube to launch ABC-branded channels on the website.9

The Disney/ABC YouTube channels, including ABC Entertainment and cable offerings ESPN, ABC Family and SOAPnet, were the first on the website to use its own pre-roll advertising for the short-form video clips. Under the deal, Disney sells its own advertising on the channels. That stood in contrast to previous deals YouTube made for other channels, which had the website sell ads for content providers.10

ABCNews.com serves as the main Web page for its morning, evening and prime-time news programming, including Good Morning America, World News, 20/20, Nightline and This Week.

In addition, ABC News Now, which began in 2004, offers breaking news clips, interview segments and story packages from Good Morning America, World News and Nightline.11

In June, ABC News responded to civil unrest in Iran by producing a daily half-hour webcast, Iran in Crisis, on ABCNews.com to cover the aftermath of that country’s disputed presidential election.12 That program grew out of Nightline’s own Web program NightTline, the “T” standing for its incorporating updates from users of the Twitter microblogging service.13

NBC News

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.

As of early late January 2010, it employed more about 200 staffers, according to an MSNBC spokeswoman.

Most of the news division’s digital initiatives in 2009 focused the 24-hour cable news channel MSNBC and MSNBC.com. (For further information on those digital initiatives see Cable Digital).

CBS News

CBS’ digital strategy has differed greatly from its broadcast competitors. The network passed on a deal to become an equity owner of the online video website Hulu and instead offered news content on its own TV.com website.14

CBS focused in 2009 on developing its existing digital properties, often in partnerships, rather than acquiring technology-based businesses as it had since 2006.

In June, CBS partnered with the Web startup company Ustream to stream its Evening News broadcasts and breaking news reports on CBSNews.com.15 The companies share ad revenues from streams on Ustream.tv, CBSNews.com and the websites of CBS’ owned-and-operated local TV stations.16

In September, CBS completed a separate deal with AT&T Entertainment, a Web and mobile destination for TV shows and movies, to distribute news and entertainment programming. Other content providers to AT&T Entertainment include Disney/ABC, NBC Universal, CW and USA Network, but CBS News is the only broadcast operation distributing video on the website.17

Extending its presence on mobile devices, the news division launched CBS News applications for the iPhone and Blackberry in October 2009.18 The free application allows users to view breaking news and video clips from CBSNews.com. In addition, the ad-based tool connects users to the Twitter feeds of 40 of the network’s news reporters as well as Twitter feeds from other CBSNews.com users.19

Further expanding CBS Evening News online, in September 2009, CBSNews.com launched @katiecouric, a webcast by CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor Katie Couric.20 The weekly program almost exclusively features interviews with political figures and newsmakers in business and entertainment.

In January 2010, the Katie Couric brand went mobile, with an application for iPhones and Blackberries. The app includes Couric’s segments from the Evening News, 60 Minutes, CBS Sunday Morning and the @katiecouric webcast.21

Along with initiatives for video distribution and mobile applications, CBS retooled the news division’s Web presence in 2009. 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.

But perhaps the biggest departure from the previous iteration of the CBSNews.com was the inclusion of breaking news not just from CBS news staffers but also from rival news sources, including Politico, the Washington Post and WebMD.22

CBS also moved beyond general audiences with the January 2009 launch of MoneyWatch.com, an extension of CBS Interactive’s business management website BNET. The personal finance website is geared toward professionals and features financial services guides and tools, economic news and video series.23

The site represents new competition for MarketWatch, which from 1997 to 2005 was operated jointly by CBS News and Dow Jones. In 2005 Dow Jones acquired CBS’s stake for over $500 million.

MoneyWatch.com content is regularly featured on CBS television and radio websites and the network’s mobile platforms. And its staffers have appeared on the CBS Early Show and the Evening News, as well as CBS owned-and-operated local television and radio stations.24


Footnotes

1. MSNBC.com is the default homepage on most Microsoft-based PC Web browsers, and has long been one of the top news destinations on the Web.

2. “US Online Advertising Spending, by Format, 2008-2014,” eMarketer, December 2009.

3. Ashkan Karbasfrooshan, “Will Online Video’s Ad Revenue Ever Surpass Search Advertising’s?” MediaPost Video Insider e-mail newsletter, February 3, 2010.

4. Alex Weprin, “Network News – One Click Away,” Broadcasting & Cable, July 18, 2009.

5. Alex Weprin, “Network News – One Click Away,” Broadcasting & Cable, July 18, 2009.

6. Alex Weprin, “Network News – One Click Away,” Broadcasting & Cable, July 18, 2009.

7. Brad Stone and Brian Stelter, “ABC Will Add Its Shows to Hulu Site,” New York Time, April 30, 2009.

8. “ABC News Content Now Available on Hulu,” ABC News’ Press Room, February 4, 2010.

9. Wayne Friedman, “Disney Strikes Deal With YouTube,” MediaPost News, March 31, 2009

10. Wayne Friedman, “Disney Strikes Deal With YouTube,” MediaPost News, March 31, 2009.

11. David Tanklefsky, “ABC News Launches Branded YouTube Channel,” Broadcasting & Cable, May 16, 2009.

12. Alex Weprin, “Network News – One Click Away,” Broadcasting & Cable, July 18, 2009.

13. Alex Weprin, “Network News – One Click Away,” Broadcasting & Cable, July 18, 2009.

14. Peter Kafka, “CBS Digital Exec Quincy Smith Eyes New Role in Investment Banking,” All Things Digital, May 11, 2009.

15. Nicholas Carlson, “CBS News Goes Live On The Internet With Ustream,” Business Insider, Silicon Valley Insider, June 1, 2009.

16. Nicholas Carlson, “CBS News Goes Live On The Internet With Ustream,” Business Insider, Silicon Valley Insider, June 1, 2009.

17. Wayne Friedman, “Reach Out: AT&T Entertainment Streams TV, Movies,” MediaPost News, September 10, 2009.

18. Mike Shields, “TV Nets Boost iPhone Presence,” AdWeek , October 15, 2009.

19. Mike Shields, “TV Nets Boost iPhone Presence,” AdWeek , October 15, 2009. Users will also be able to view full episodes of several original CBS News Web series, including the Tomorrow Show, Washington Unplugged and Doc Dot Com.

20. “Katie Couric Debuts New Web Show,” CBSNews.com, September 21, 2009.

21. “Eat Your Heart Out Brian Williams, Couric Gets Own App,” MediaPost News Brief, January 7, 2009.

22. “CBS News Revamps CBSNews.com,” Radio Business Report/Television Business Report, June 16, 2009.

23. Staci D. Kramer, “CBS Interactive Sees Opportunity In The Downturn; Launching MoneyWatch.com,” paidContent.org, January 27, 2009.

24. Gavin O’Malley, “CBS Launches MoneyWatch, Partners With LinkedIn,” MediaPost News, April 7, 2009.