What is the future of television news and how much of a change does it need in order to survive?

Rasmus Nielsen
, Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) moderated a panel to answer these questions on 7 April, 2016: alongside him were Richard Sambrook, Director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University, Alison Broddle, Executive Producer of Digital Content at the CBC and Ibrahim Helal, Editor Advisor for Al Jazeera Network.

With internet embracing video and increasing the demand for mobile and social content, the panellists discussed the future of televised media and how it can survive in a completely revolutionised environment.

Crucial point of the discussion was understanding how different news providers have responded – and could respond in the future –  to the changes in the media environment, with internet being the major competitor.

Nielsen pointed out that television viewing in technology advanced markets such as the US and the UK has been suffering a steady decline since 2012, with a 16% and 10% decrease respectively.

“These figures are directly comparable to the decline in circulation of newspapers in the new millennium,” he said. “In turn, they could potentially bring profound changes for mainstream television as we know it.”

Despite televised news losing audience, ours seems to be a golden age for television as a whole: entertainment programmes such as sporting events and movies are getting more viewers than they used to in the past.

So why is news content being neglected by the general audience?

Former head of news at BBC, Richard Sambrook explored the structural changes of television markets and whether going digital would be an appropriate response to these changes.

“With internet-connected TV as a mass consumer preposition, how many are willing to wait for the bulletin?”

Touching points such as whether video teams should blend with the rest of the newsroom or not, and the digital player and its relevance as a journalistic tool, Sambrook mentioned organisations that are successfully breaking into the social distributive environment (AJ+, BBC).

In order for such organisations to engage with their audience, there is the need to understand what the market demand is, meaning sometimes there ought to be a shift in terms of content.

“In a digital environment, a classic two-minute package as we see on news bulletins won’t work – Sambrook said – The mistake that some legacy organisations are making is neglecting the power of online.”

At the same time, on whether experimenting with the possibilities of digital content drives monetisation, the Director of the Cardiff-based Centre for Journalism talked about television running the risk of losing its purpose.

“As the environment changed, TV lost its privileged position on the market. We have to relearn what this whole purpose is now that the broadcast spectrum is unlimited and the audience is much wider.”

Alison Broddle shared her thoughts on the matter: “The trend going down is not en excuse to just quit and go digital. TV news has to learn how to direct its resources,” she said.

The CBC Executive Producer stressed on the baggage that television broadcasters have to deal with when it comes to adapting stories to new formats: the change is gradual and requires a lot of thinking, but it is going to happen.

She explained how well-known personalities within the industry such as reporters and anchors can help in the process of engaging new audiences: “We get them to write analysis pieces and sending dispatches from the field in a text form, so that we can build on the personality they already have.”

The word then went to Ibrahim Helal, who commented on data regarding our relationship with smartphones. According to these figures, the average person in the US spends more than three hours per day on their phones, however only 2% of this time is devoted to news. Similar numbers were found in other studies run in the UK and in China.

“People think they have news because they have data, but information provided from mobiles has nothing to do with news,” he said.

According to the Al Jazeera Editor Advisor, televised media has fallen into the trap of producing predictable news: “Western society is coherent, systematic. You expect what is going to happen – that is why people don’t watch it.”

Helal warned broadcasters not to put their competitors before their audience: “We need to avoid the trap with online content, we should not lower our journalism standards. The running order should not change because competitors do so,” he said.

As well as maintaining high standards, he also wishes for news bulletins to be more self-tailored and to respond to the demand of the audience in depth.

As a closing thought, the panel also discussed the idea of television becoming a second-screen viewing platform.

“It’s the same thing that has happened to radio in the past: people used it as a background while doing other things: it is not necessarily a negative trend – said Nielsen – It can allow viewers to connect and interact with others in their community.”