EXCLUSIVE: When streaming news outlet CBSN hit its goal last year of roughly 1 million streaming starts per day, CBS News Digital EVP and GM Christy Tanner ordered celebratory cupcakes for the newsroom, decorated with “1M” in frosting.
In 2020, a year marked by Covid-19, a tumultuous election and weeks of uprisings against racism, CBSN has blown away its 2019 total of 327 million streaming starts. The free, ad-supported service says it has racked up 1 billion as of this week, with a “start” defined as an engagement of any length. Overall viewing time on CBSN has averaged about one hour.
There won’t be cupcakes — or a physical newsroom to celebrate in — for a while, as CBS News has been a 95% virtual operation since March 13 due to the pandemic. But still, a number is a number, even though (as Tanner readily acknowledges) the kind of third-party measurement that has adjudicated the ratings wars between broadcast news teams for decades does not yet exist in streaming.
“Getting to 1 billion streams was not necessarily a goal that we had set,” Tanner told Deadline. “But it’s been fun for our staff to stay motivated by these number milestones.” News purveyors of many stripes — not just at CBS — have prospered during the acceleration of pandemic streaming and also the geyser of news. In Tanner’s view, though, “Having more news players in the space lifts all boats. News is not winner-take-all.”
CBS is benefiting from its early streaming start. Even though the most enduring associations with CBS News are iconic 20th century figures like Walter Cronkite or Edward R. Murrow, the company under former CEO Les Moonves placed some significant digital bets. That has continued since the December 2019 merger of Viacom with CBS, and CEO Bob Bakish’s installation in October of Pluto TV founder Tom Ryan into the company’s top streaming role.
Tanner came to CBS when the company bought TV Guide’s digital assets (in a curious series of events that saw the magazine’s print operation was cleaved from digital), which she ran as CEO for several years. CBSN launched in November 2014 and Tanner the following year became SVP and GM of CBS News Digital. The emerging outlet, which had a common base with CBS News but a different set of anchors and reporters, became one of the first channels included on platforms like Pluto TV (now a corporate sibling at ViacomCBS), Roku and Amazon Fire TV.
“Without third-party measurement, you really don’t know, but we assume that we are the leader in live streaming news,” Tanner said. “Often when we launch on a new service or device, we’re the first news channel.”
While revenue isn’t broken out for CBSN, Tanner said 2020 has been a “blockbuster” financial year. Across all of ViacomCBS, streaming and digital video revenue reached $636 million in the third quarter, up 56% from the same period a year ago. (That figure includes proceeds from the 17.9 million subscribers to CBS All Access and Showtime’s OTT service.) As linear viewership erodes and more customers cut the cord, ad dollars are shifting toward streaming, lured by the idea that more precise targeting is possible in a purely digital environment.
Distribution has been a strength. CBSN is carried by 20 connected platforms, this week adding PlayStation 5 and Sling TV. It has rolled out localized iterations focused on markets like New York, LA and three others, tapping ViacomCBS-owned station resources in those cities. Last summer, it also expanded globally in 89 countries, and English-speaking and U.S.-adjacent countries contributed significantly to the 1 billion streams, especially during the buildup to the November 3 election.
When CBS All Access rebrands next year as Paramount+, CBSN programming will be one of its pillars, even more so than it has been in the era of All Access, which debuted in 2015. While details remain under wraps, the impulse to leverage news is one that is shared by other streaming operators. WarnerMedia’s HBO Max will add an ad-supported tier in 2021 and has promised to incorporate news content into it, potentially from CNN. NBC News and shows like Today have been cornerstones of NBCUniversal’s Peacock, and ABC News this month deepened its ties with Hulu, which showcased ABC’s live political coverage earlier this year.
While Netflix set the bar for on-demand streaming, Tanner said viewers don’t relish the endless scroll. Linear program guides — a hallmark of traditional pay-TV — have been added to major AVOD outlets like Amazon Fire TV and the Roku Channel, and have always been built into Pluto’s offering. Accordingly, CBSN’s 24-7 feed satisfies a well-established itch by viewers to not have to hunt for news. “There’s an entertainment playbook that’s fairly well established,” Tanner said. “But we lead with live and continuously update everything. The familiarity of that form factor makes a lot of sense for a lot of people. As a consumer, it’s a challenge to navigate between streaming services with different interfaces.”
Having spent years convening product development meetings with distribution partners, she added, “We have found that linear is a pretty clear proposition. We don’t have to train them on it.”