Is it possible to get millennials to watch the news?

Maybe not. But CBS is trying through a venture called CBSN that doesn’t require its audience to even own a TV.

By Tariro Mzezewa

CBSN
Broadcast news is dying. Its audience has dispersed. And few under 30 watch the nightly news, or even TV at all, for that matter. These truisms have become accepted wisdom in the mediasphere over the last several years. While some news organizations have embraced technology and held onto their readers and viewers, others have struggled significantly to do this. If there is a network that has been a particular target of criticism, it’s probably CBS. CBS is trying to change that. In November 2014, the network launched CBSN, a free, 24/7 live-streamed digital news channel that can be watched on computers, tablets, phones, and smart TVs. The site follows a 60-minute format where news is updated between 9am and midnight every day. In addition to news reports, CBSN features special reports and content from CBS affiliates like Entertainment Tonight and cbsSports.com. Viewers also have the option to go back and forth between live programming and older segments, like with a DVR.

The network, in other words, is trying to lure millennials not by providing programming targeted to a young audience, but by making the news available for the way millennials watch it—on platforms other than TVs. The site is ad-supported and is, in a way, a source of aggregated CBS news content from around the country. Viewers can easily access the news from anywhere by simply going to the website. Once there, instead of having to watch everything, they can choose which news segments to watch.

Without a strong digital news presence CBS has been missing out on a key demographic: millennials, who, despite assertions of being uninterested in the news, appear to be simply finding it through other means than their parents.

For this group, Facebook has become a main source for finding news, but it’s not the only place.

“Eighty-three percent of millennials are bumping into news on YouTube and 50 percent on Instagram, which might suggest an appetite for actually seeing the news,” said Jennifer Benz, principal research scientist and deputy director of the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Chicago.

CBS has recognized that if it wants to remain relevant, it needs younger viewers, and it needs to reach them in different means than it has been. The network’s effort is reflective of broader initiatives by all legacy media, especially in broadcast. A month after CBSN launched, NBC launched its own streaming service on its site, which offers all of its content—news programming as well as shows. The difference, however, is that in order to access the NBC content, viewers need to already subscribe to a cable provider, so the service isn’t free.

According to SNL Kagan research, in 2013, multichannel video subscriptions fell to about 100 million—a 251,000 decrease from previous years. This is an indication that people don’t necessarily want to subscribe and pay, they just want access—and CBSN allows them to get it.

Currently, CBS News has the oldest viewer demographic of any major network and network newscast, with a median viewer of 58.7 years. The network has developed a reputation among viewers as being an old network for old viewers, earning the nickname “the geezer network.” It’s criticized for not being diverse enough, young enough, or enterprising enough.

Thus, the nearly 88-year-old organization has much at stake with its latest initiative. Its strategy is designed with facts like these in mind: Nine in ten 18 to 29 year olds watch online videos, 48 percent watch online news.

Those news habits are radically different than those from previous generations. Back then, families began their days by turning on a TV to watch the morning news and then rushed home to the evening news. Viewers today, especially young ones, aren’t rushing home to watch much of anything on a television set, much less a newscast. Millennials, generally considered those aged 15 to 34, spend 34 percent of their time watching TV online, which is about three times more than non-millennials do, according to Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers research on media trends.

A 2014 study conducted by Deloitte showed that those between 14 and 30 spend about half their time consuming media on a traditional TV, the youngest viewers at 44 percent. Meanwhile, Generation X viewers are in front of a TV 70 percent of the time. Baby Boomers consume media from an actual TV at 70 percent and 88 percent, respectively.

By the time older viewers start watching a broadcast in the morning, younger viewers have already received and absorbed the information from their phones. This is where CBSN comes into play. From a tablet or phone, a millennial viewer can watch the day’s main stories in a matter of minutes by simply opening a web browser and typing in cbsn.cbsnews.com, and then choosing which segment they want to watch at that particular moment.

Millennial viewers want to be able to choose what they watch and CBSN, to an extent, allows them to do that. The site has a newsfeed that runs along the left side of the page. If viewers don’t want to watch live video that’s playing in the center of the page, they can choose to watch one of the other segments available. In a way, CBSN provides a curated news experience for viewers who aren’t interested in waiting for several live segments to end.

According to a study released by the Media Insight Project, a collaboration between the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the American Press Institute, millennials are following the news. In fact, 85 percent of the study’s participants said they keep up with the news and 69 percent said they consume news on a daily basis.

“The stereotype of millennials not being interested in news doesn’t stand,” said Benz. “Data shows the opposite. Millennials are interested in the news and across several measures. Millennials are tuned in.”

CBSN is trying to tap this interest in the news not only by rethinking how it delivers news, but also by increasing its use of social media.

As for the newscasts themselves, CBS is also working to make improvements. CBS News President David Rhodes has in recent months said there are ways the network can gather news that are specific to the platform, but he hasn’t elaborated on what CBSN will do differently to get its news.

CBSN, which was led by Rhodes, claims that it is meeting with early success, but the network hasn’t released any details about the numbers of viewers, so it’s not clear just how successful. Since the service is being distributed beyond the reach of Nielsen, there hasn’t been any measurement of real-time audiences across the numerous platforms.

The network has said “millions” of people are logging on and this may not be far-fetched, considering that 62 percent of Americans are willing to sit through short ads to access free TV content on an internet-connected device.

CBSN’s leaders openly admit that there is plenty of work to be done. From embracing social media to diversifying the news gathering techniques right down to the way news stories are told.

CBSN is still in its early phases, so many changes can be expected. The network intends to attract younger viewers in their 20s and 30s by using social media in a way that appeals to them.

“Having a news service for smartphone devices seems fine because millennials are so engaged,” said research analyst Benz. “The question is how CBS will reach millennials so they are better able to bump into that news.”

Tariro Mzezewa is originally from Harare, Zimbabwe, and is interested in covering human rights issues in the developing world.