One of the biggest unheralded trends in the industry last year was the growth in live streaming.
While streaming of live programming, particularly news and sports, is nothing new, the trend is notable because streaming has long been dominated by on-demand viewing at services like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Now, major platforms like Roku, Peacock and others are paying more attention to the development of linear channels, a move that could have major implications for the way companies monetize streaming content.
While the pandemic sidelined live sports for much of the year, news organizations reported record results in 2020. “What we saw in the last year was people looking for lifesaving information from trusted news sources,” noted Christy Tanner, executive VP and GM of CBS News Digital.
That produced record traffic for all the major news organizations. The CBSN 24-hour streaming news service, for example, racked up a record 28.5 million streams and 19.5 million unique viewers on Election Day (Nov. 3) and then beat that mark with 40.9 million streams and 27.9 million unique viewers on Nov. 4.
In addition to the pandemic and the election driving viewer interest, Porter Berry, VP and editor and chief of Fox News Digital, noted that “with 5G and phones and tablets becoming more and more a place to go for news and information, video has become more and more important.”
That helped fuel record-breaking digital audiences for election coverage, with video starts on Nov. 4 jumping 167%, page views rising 249% and time spent viewping up a whopping 312% compared to post-election traffic in 2016, according to Adobe Analytics and Apple News.
CNN also had a record-breaking year, with an average of 215 million monthly unique visitors globally in the first 10 months of 2020, up from 162 million in 2019, and 163 million unique visitors in the U.S., according to Comscore.
“2020 was a year like no other for us,” noted Wendy Brundige, senior VP of global video at CNN. “We had a lot of growth this year on our TV app with people wanting to watch on their connected TV devices.”
Whether news channels can continue these record-breaking patterns into 2021 is an open question, given the once in a lifetime stories that drove traffic in 2020.
But there is little doubt that interest in live streaming and offering linear TV channels in a variety of genres is likely to accelerate this year.
Chris Berend, executive VP of digital for NBC News Group, also reported record-setting traffic in 2020. It hopes to build on that by continuing to work closely with the NBCUniversal direct-to-consumer Peacock service to develop channels and content, he said.
In 2020, NBCU launched the “Today All Day” streaming product on Peacock and added a number of special NBC News productions to the platform. “Peacock is a critical part of our streaming future for news programming,” Berend said. “It is very much the sun in our solar system.”
Others stressed that the trend goes beyond news into entertainment programming and ad-supported linear channels.
Scott Rosenberg, Roku senior VP and general manager of the platform business, cited the growth in live streaming as one of the key trends Roku hopes to capitalize on in 2021.
“On the Roku Channel, we now have over 130 linear channels that are presented in a grid-like fashion like an EPG,” or electronic program guide, Rosenberg said. “Many folks expected that viewership would switch to pure on-demand viewing, but many viewers are looking for that lean-back experience. So we are seeing that paradigm is being recreated in streaming.”
Such channels are also a key part of the push to increase advertising revenue. “We think that advertising has been and will be a central funding model for the TV ecosystem,” Rosenberg said. “TV ad dollars are already reflowing towards streaming.”
Rick Cordella, executive VP and chief revenue officer for Peacock, also stressed that live linear TV channels are a central part of the strategy for the direct-to-consumer offering. “We have channels like NBC News Now, NBC Sports, etc., in a bunch of different categories that provide the linear experience of the multichannel universe that doesn’t really have much of a place on other premium video providers,” Cordella said.
These linear channels have proved particularly popular among cord-cutters, he said, and having linear channels helps freshen up the service. “Because the content is constantly being updated, it feels more vibrant than other SVODs where what I saw last week is what I’ll see this week,” he said.
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