As a television network, CBS has a reputation for its death grip on older viewers who still watch television when it airs and who turn out in droves for everything from procedural franchises such as “CSI” and “NCIS” to Chuck Lorre’s stable of comedies, including the soon-to-end “Two and a Half Men” and monster hit “The Big Bang Theory.”
The Eye, as it is nicknamed, has other draws, too, including “The Good Wife,” the best drama presently airing on network, and “Person of Interest,” which has serious ideas about surveillance. But any suggestion that CBS is looking toward cultivating a younger audience feels a bit like a bellwether that the future of television is really, truly arriving. The most recent sign of this is Les Moonves’s recently announced plans to start a 24-hour digital news network, rather than to play with cable competitors such as Fox News or MSNBC.
In theory, going to where viewers are is smart. Moonves is also correct when he makes the point that there are a lot of stories that do not break at the right time to make an evening newscast, that are worthy but do not make the cut for including in a very constrained half-hour, and that might not fit in the sorts of segments that television needs to produce in order to accommodate its advertisers’ needs. But there is something a little off about the idea of trying to do 24-hour programming for digital platforms that suggests CBS’s announcement is not exactly groundbreaking.
The thing about the Web is that all content is essentially 24-hour content. Rather than needing something to come on in a given slot, all of your stories, shows and other content are available all the time. Netflix, which has emerged as a serious competitor to networks such as HBO and FX, has become so in part because it does not have to program to fill all, or even very much, of prime time. Instead, it just has to have a couple of shows that people want to watch and make it possible for them to watch them whenever they please.
The trick to programming news online is not for CBS to pressure itself to have something new airing in every minute of every day. That is how MSNBC has ended up with oceans of similar chatter, and Fox News’s genius has come out in finding new formats to advance the same stories, and to drive liberals completely up a wall.
Instead, CBS needs to figure out what audiences actually need and want, and program accordingly. Sometimes, that will mean adding reporting and commentary when necessary. Sometimes, it will just be making sure that viewers can find packages and context when they become relevant. The key to such a digital outlet’s success will be curation and creative use of existing CBS news resources, maintenance of the home page and an excellent search function, rather than new ways to fill up hours and terabytes.
Moonves could easily end up in a situation in which he saves himself the costs of spectrum but replicates most other expenses of a cable news network by hiring a lot of anchors and correspondents solely for the sake of producing 1,440 minutes of content a day (subtracting some time for streaming ads, of course). Much of that content could be disposable the moment it airs, at rather considerable expense. If you are going to make segments and tell stories explicitly for a medium where everything lives forever, then you should focus on building stories and resources that can be rich and relevant at a viewer’s whim or the moment the news cycle changes.
Moonves and CBS would do better to recognize that if they truly want to go digital, they need to do something different than bring an old product to an audience with new expectations and with a great many options for meeting them. Building a big new enterprise like this is not the same sort of task as picking Stephen Colbert to fill David Letterman’s late-night slot, choosing someone just different enough, but essentially familiar, to move an institution slowly forward. If Moonves and his company can think about what kind of information is truly missing from the business they hope to enter and then deliver that, less could turn out to be a whole lot more.