Eric’s Blog

How online content creators fit into the factual TV market

TV networks and stations with national or regional audiences for their news and factual programming seem like ripe targets for online content creators. There is a dynamic market demand among broadcast news organizations (both public service broadcasters and private stations, television and radio) for online content. And while all have their own in-house “digital team” putting out content on social media and their websites, those internal teams may or may not be delivering the results the station needs. That’s where outside production teams specializing in creating compelling online content come in.

In an era of increasingly fragmented market shares in television, anything that increases (or has the potential to increase) the market share of news and factual programming will be looked at with a lot of interest, especially anything that seems to attract younger, more educated and more affluent audiences, and for sure that’s how online content creators should present their services to news organizations initially.

However, online content companies should also recognize that news organizations have certain characteristics which set them apart from other types of potential clients. Doing news is a source of a lot of pride within most parent companies, giving legitimacy and credibility in a way game shows, reality programs, entertainment, sports and advertising never could. Successful news organizations consistently draw large audiences and can be significant profit centers for their parent companies and, by reporting on issues of significance, provide real value to audiences and pride for their parent companies.

Key market success factors in news include a combination of credible, compelling content and talent, a relentlessly competitive attitude and a strong focus on promotion. The producers of news and factual programming are good at what they do. It’s why, despite diminishing audience share every year, television remains the dominant medium for news and factual programming worldwide, why the bulk of advertising dollars still goes to TV, and why the source of so much content online is actually television.

One of the things that makes news a tough market for the new generation of digital/online content is that many news organizations are frankly not convinced of its real value. They all know they have to be there, and they are doing it just like everyone else, but because the numbers they see are not particularly persuasive, for now they are not putting many resources into it.

While a single post on a social media platform can get a million (or 20 million views), it’s very hard to do that consistently, or even more than once. But broadcast programming regularly scores audience numbers in the millions, or hundreds of thousands, every night.

The online units of many of the top tier broadcast news organizations are small, with few people working on it; the budgets for online content are usually a fraction of the overall news budget. The reason is obvious. While broadcasters recognize the phenomenal growth in online users over the past few years, overall the numbers for online are still disappointing compared with their traditional platforms. Lower numbers, less resources, it’s that simple.

So, while it’s important to be there, and growing, for now online content remains a sideshow for the biggest news organizations. A common perception is that online content can increase audience share marginally in the direction of younger audiences, but not something that helps their broadcast platforms, which have far bigger audiences and which are the main source of their revenue and profitability.

Decision-makers in news are tough, skeptical people. They do a lot of audience research and understand exactly what audience share is, where it comes from and what it means to their businesses. That’s good news for online content providers, who will find a receptive audience for precise numbers-driven analysis, despite the perception that many of the top television executives are conservative people unwilling to move away from what they see as their “core businesses.”

But there is a disconnect between what news people hear about online content and what they can see. Many of the fabulous claims providers of online content and data services make about what they are delivering seem like rhetoric and hype to experienced news executives and does not enhance the online medium’s credibility as a serious news source.

More importantly, the hot new trend of “seamlessly blending” factual content and advertising into what is known as branded content and native advertising, particularly online, is anathema to top news organizations. They have battled for years with advertisers, owners and general managers who wanted to integrate ad content into news programming. Today advertising is always “fenced off” in broadcast news, and the result is the most dominant news medium the world has ever seen. Broadcasters have spent many years building the reputations they enjoy (and the audience share and profits that go with it) and know how easily those reputations could be destroyed. They will always be cautious to use any content that has advertising embedded in it. In the case of many of Europe’s public service broadcasters, the practice is illegal, violating their mandate to serve the public transparently.

The challenge to reach these buyers will be to show news organizations how online content can build audience share on their traditional broadcast platforms. That growth can be expressed in raw numbers, or potentially even more interesting, by bringing in a new, younger demographic to broadcast platforms via online engagement. Giving broadcasters the tools to do that would definitely be something they would look at.

My suggestions for online content producers who want to be more successful in developing clients in news and factual programming include:

  • Help your potential buyers understand that online content is not a mirror of television but indeed a totally different experience than TV; that it can enhance the television viewing experience without drawing audience away from it.
  • Do a better job educating news people about how to value and evaluate success in the online medium. For example, explain how engagement (defined as the number of hits/views + time of interaction) is a deeper metric than views alone why it important for the specific demographics they are trying to reach. Explain that value in online content is no longer only about the number of unique views.
  • If online content could be “moderated” by a journalist will be very attractive to news organizations. This will go a long way toward defusing the concerns about commercialism/branded content in something that will be associated with a news product.
  • Be clear about the numbers; audience share, demographics and trends. Positive growth comparisons are good (this year vs. last year, broadcast vs. online, etc.) Don’t worry about small numbers overall; the important thing will be to focus on growth and the potential for that, particularly among younger users and the users of mobile devices.
  • Be up front and transparent about the role ad content plays in your offer. Obviously, news organizations are not against advertising, indeed they are largely dependent on it, but ads associated with a news or factual programming need to be clearly labelled. Assure the client you are sensitive to how transparency about ad content works in relation to the application they are buying.

My sense is that most news organizations not only want this type of service for their audiences but are starting to realize that they cannot do this themselves. More and more they are recognizing they need real experts – specialists in online content development to make it happen for them. They need people to show them what’s out there and to show them how it can be done. And most importantly, showing them the numbers are going up.

When it comes to providing online content, the interest and the desire is there in every news organization. But the value versus the costs needs to be clearly expressed, as well as an understanding of how news organizations work to both serve their audiences and be profitable.