Cable news has functioned as the harrowing background soundtrack to much of 2015 and 2016. In covering terrorist attacks, protests against the police and a presidential election whose daily antics seem tailor-made for the overheated ethos of cable, Fox News, CNN and MSNBC have all won huge increases in viewership . But as they say on cable, we’ve just gotten word of some breaking news — and it’s not pretty. If you’re watching on […] mute (which says something by itself, right?), you can consult this helpful Chyron: “Facebook to Swallow TV News, Just as It Has Everything Else.”
That, anyway, is the best way to interpret what happened last week, when the biggest story in the country was dominated by live-streaming apps made by Facebook and Twitter.
Historians of television news often cite the 1991 Gulf War as the breakthrough moment for cable — a conflict that proved there was a market for round-the-clock coverage of the sort that CNN was offering. For most humans, last week’s police shootings, the subsequent protests and the mass assassination of police officers in Dallas were a tragic commentary on modern American race relations. But for that subspecies of humans known as television executives, the events might also have functioned as an alarming peek at a radically altered future.
What we saw last week was live streaming’s Gulf War, a moment that will catapult the technology into the center of the news — and will begin to inexorably alter much of television news as we know it. And that’s not a bad thing. Though it will shake up the economics of TV, live streaming is opening up a much more compelling way to watch the news.
Consider the video posted by Diamond Reynolds, who began streaming on Facebook Live right from the car in which her boyfriend, Philando Castile, had just been shot by a police officer. Or the horrific scene as the gunman in Dallas began his rampage, captured and instantly broadcast on Facebook by a photographer named Michael Kevin Bautista. Or the clip by DeRay Mckesson, one of the leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, who captured his own arrest in Baton Rouge, La., this weekend on Periscope, Twitter’s live app.
These scenes suggest that streaming apps don’t just have the potential to bring us stories more quickly than TV can. They also greatly expand on the kind of stories you normally see. Streaming news stretches our collective point of view, showing us perspectives from people who might otherwise have been ignored by the news, and from places where television cameras would never have happened to be.
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Another Night, Another Shooting on Facebook Live JULY 13, 2016
“I think we saw last week that Facebook Live could become the most intelligent cable news network ever built,” said Jonathan Klein, a former president of CNN, who now runs a digital media company called Tapp. With more than 1.65 billion users, he said, “Facebook effectively has one and a half billion news bureaus to capture news, and they’re capable of doing things that a cable news network could only dream of doing.”
Yes, Mr. Klein is speculating about Facebook’s potential path. At this point, neither Facebook nor Twitter is anything close to a TV news network. Facebook Live was started just a few months ago in partnership with several news organizations (including The New York Times, which receives payments from Facebook for producing Live videos). Until last week, it was best known for gonzo journalism involving weird tricks with food. Twitter’s live service, Periscope, is older, but it too is better thought of as a series of one-off clips than a comprehensive source of news.
But you can bet both services will expand their horizons. Twitter announced this week that it was streaming the Democratic and Republican conventions in partnership with CBS News. It also announced a plan to stream Bloomberg’s TV shows, and it has a deal to show National Football League games later this year.
It’s not clear yet what shape Facebook’s plans for Live will take, especially since the company has been reluctant to think of itself as a news company. Yet it wouldn’t take many deals and product changes to turn Facebook into a worthy substitute for one of the cable news networks.
Soon you might log on to Facebook and see, right at the top of your feed, a collection of videos produced by professionals and amateurs and tailored to your interests — breaking news and analysis related to topics you like, all of which load instantly in your feed, ad-free, and without any of the constant, interminable waiting for stuff to happen that characterizes traditional cable news.
As a business matter, this might be a danger for TV. As Matt Rosoff explained last week in Business Insider, live coverage was supposed to be the industry’s steadiest bulwark against the internet. Thanks to online networks like Netflix, people are dropping cable subscriptions as if they were toxic; one of the few remaining reasons to keep paying a monthly fee is to watch live news and sports, which are both difficult to get online.
Now that rampart is disappearing. If you turned on one of the cable news networks last week, you would have most likely seen videos lifted straight from streaming apps playing in endless televised loops. If you watched for more than a few minutes, you would have been forgiven for wondering, “Wait, if all this video is coming from Facebook, why am I watching TV?”
Then there’s TV news’s demographic cliff. People who regularly watch cable news are old. According to statistics compiled at the end of last year, CNN’s prime-time audience was the youngest in cable news — with a median age of 59. The median age of Fox News’s prime-time audience is 68. (TV news isn’t alone here. The median age of a subscriber to The New York Times’s digital edition is 54; for print subscribers, it’s 60. But of course, we all know that with age comes sophistication.)
In the past, an aged audience might not have raised red flags, because it was generally the case that younger people grew into their parents’ news habits. But as online alternatives improve, the less likely that is to happen.
“The next generation just doesn’t ever intend to watch the 6 o’clock or 11 o’clock or any other newscast,” said Andrew Heyward, a former president of CBS News who is now a visiting researcher at the MIT Media Lab.
It’s possible to make too much of the threat that live streaming poses to TV news. “Citizen journalism” has gotten a lot of attention from techno-optimists in the last decade, but blogging, tweeting, podcasting and everything else haven’t replaced traditional journalism so much as they have expanded its tone and range. That’s likely to happen on TV too; streaming apps won’t kill CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, but as the apps become more popular, they will force TV news providers to shift their approach to coverage.
“The more chaotic and unstructured the world of online live video becomes, the more important the curator, analyst or honest broker of information can be,” Mr. Heyward said.
In the best situation, TV news could become just such an honest broker: Instead of showing you only the news of the day and the most superficial hot-take debates surrounding it, TV networks could respond to the internet by pumping more resources into in-depth reporting, analysis and explanation, cultivating a wider range of perspectives.
As Mr. Klein put it, “Maybe all these years, the importance of scintillating video has been overblown, and the mission for news outlets could be to help viewers understand what all that video really means.”