CBS last fall launched a cable news channel, except not on cable. CBSN is a free, live 24/7 video news feed for computers, phones, tablets, connected televisions and streaming services.
But just because it’s not on cable doesn’t mean viewers aren’t watching it on TV. One-third of the channel’s viewers are actually watching on big screens via connected TVs and set-top boxes like Roku and Amazon Fire TV. Those people also watch much more video: 56 percent of all content on the service, according to stats CBS released this week.
"While we knew that connected TV devices would be important drivers of usage for CBSN, we didn't anticipate just how engaged the viewers on those platforms would be, consuming over half of all streams and spending the longest amount of time per stream,” CBS Interactive executive vice president Marc DeBevoise said.
CBS for years had been a rumored suitor for Time Warner Inc.’s CNN, and the channel allows CBS News to do things it hasn't been able to do before, such as cover Loretta Lynch's confirmation hearings for attorney general live as they happened on Wednesday, as well as Syria's prisoner swap with the Islamic State. In contrast to the polished sets of cable news, CBSN's anchors do their work standing in CBS newsrooms in Washington and New York, throwing to local TV correspondents around the country. The approach is casual; no talk of "snowmaggedon" or any sense that they've got to grab viewers, or ratings, by the throat.
CBS News President David Rhodes said reinventing cable news isn’t the play. “If we wanted to get into cable news, we would have started a cable news channel,” Rhodes, who joined CBS in 2011 from Bloomberg TV, said. “We think this is a bigger opportunity and that’s what this product is for.”
CBS isn’t saying how many people are actually watching, except to say “millions,” and part of that is technical. CBSN is being distributed out of the reach of Nielsen across Apple iOS devices, connected set-tops and of course desktop PCs. Rhodes said there's no tool that can show real-time audiences across all the various platforms. Roku has said the channel is the No. 1 news outlet on the set-top box, where viewers are watching two hours a week. Suffice it to say, it has a long way to go to touch Fox News.
One other thing that makes it like TV: People appear to be tuning in around big news events. “We’ve had viewership spikes around major news events, including the snowstorm,” he said. “What I expect we will get to -- when the tech is better for measurement -- I expect you will get to a place you will know minute by minute when people are coming in and going out, where they are getting referred from.”
To get CBSN off the ground, CBS made an investment in technology but not an expansion of the newsroom. The content is being generated both by the existing network news operation and local TV stations around the country. In the past, a lot of this video simply hit the cutting-room floor. “All this news coverage is stuff we are generating anyway from the main news organizations,” he said. “This is kind of what is flowing into the news organization each day anyway.”
One example: On Monday night, between TV newscasts, WCBS anchor Kristine Johnson was doing live standups on CBSN as snow moved into the New York area.
CBSN was launched about the same time that CBS TV launched its CBS All Access, a $5.99-a-month subscription offering with live streaming of CBS network shows and an on-demand archive. CBS hasn't discussed subscriber numbers for that service yet. But one could imagine either -- or both -- appearing in the emerging class of Internet-based TV bundles, such as Dish Networks' Sling TV service.
Where does CBSN go next? An Android app is in the works and deals with TV and connected set-top boxes. "As of now, CBSN is stand-alone and we think there is demand for it this way, especially since it's free," DeBevoise said. "Long-term we would like to see it more places, depending on the ways these devices promote and package channels."