CBS News beefs up streaming service CBSN with weekly documentaries

CBS News has begun scheduling its original documentaries to air as weekly series on its livestreaming service CBSN. CBS News had previously released its CBSN Originals documentaries intermittently throughout the year, but it opted to adopt a regular schedule in order to get people in the habit of tuning into CBSN at particular times for its original programming.

CBS News releases the documentaries for on-demand viewing on its digital properties on Thursdays and then airs them live on CBSN the following Sunday at 8 p.m. ET. The 20- to 30-minute documentaries air on CBSN in hourlong blocks with the remaining minutes typically filled out with interviews related to the documentary’s topic. As part of the updated distribution strategy, CBS News is grouping CBSN Originals into batches of six based on their themes. The first batch is titled “Speaking Frankly” and includes documentaries covering topics such as dating apps, child marriage in the U.S. and the ubiquity of porn.

Since implementing the weekly release strategy on Oct. 27, CBS News has seen a nearly 20% increase in streams for the first two episodes aired this way compared to recent airings of its other original documentaries, according to a CBS News Digital spokesperson. CBSN averages more than 1 million streams per day across its site, mobile app, connected TV apps and presence on streaming services such as CBS All Access and Hulu’s live pay-TV service.

“We decided to release them more or less on a weekly cadence in groups of six so that, if you liked the first one in the series or the second one in the series, you’d know that another one is coming soon,” said Christy Tanner, evp and gm of CBS News Digital.

CBS News has been growing its slate of CBSN Originals since debuting the documentaries in January 2016 and signing a deal with Pfizer to sponsor the series. Including the series’ third season that is currently running, the company will have produced 46 of these original documentaries, Tanner said.

As CBSN has added more original programming to the mix, CBS News has had to figure out how to slot the documentaries into the streaming service’s live schedule. “Our original series is a really super important part of our overall programming, but our bread and butter is livestreaming and being able to turn on a dime for breaking news,” Tanner said.

CBS News had previously scheduled the documentaries to air at irregular intervals on CBSN so that it would have the flexibility to cover breaking news events. The company had tried airing the documentaries on weekdays but found that news breaks too frequently throughout the week to accommodate that schedule. In April 2018, it moved the releases to Sunday nights.

The weekly distribution strategy adheres to the traditional TV distribution model that has become a widely adopted model for digital shows as well. Publishers have gravitated to weekly releases for the episodic series they upload to YouTube, and streaming services like Disney+ and Apple TV+ have chosen to release episodes for a majority of their original shows in a weekly cadence. “When you have a weekly series or set time or appointment viewing, people can then build their schedule around it,” said Gibbs Haljun, total investment lead at Mindshare.

Habituating people to tune in at particular times to increase the documentaries’ viewership can also help CBSN from an ad sales perspective. Advertisers remain wary of news programming in general and breaking news programming in particular. “Documentaries about climate change are far easier and less polarizing from a sensitivity standpoint,” Haljun said.

The TV-like release strategy also coincides with the fact that more than half of the time people stream CBSN on connected TVs. On average, 54% of streams specifically of CBSN Originals happen on connected TVs, according to the CBS News Digital spokesperson.

“We know from viewership stats that OTT viewership spikes in prime time. Sunday night is a good night for longer-form programming on the stream. We see long durations on OTT,” said Tanner. Overall viewers on average spend 80 minutes at a time watching CBSN’s live feed, but on connected TVs specifically, the average live session length is more than 90 minutes, according to the spokesperson.

Grouping the CBSN Originals into series of six by theme will help CBS News to re-air them as marathons on CBSN. CBSN began stringing its documentaries into marathons over Thanksgiving in 2017 and uses the marathons to expose people to the original programs and retain viewers across episodes. “Now that we have 46 CBSN Originals, that gives us a lot of programming to run on a holiday weekend, which may be new to some viewers. It also gives our staff who work really hard covering breaking news a bit of a break,” Tanner said.

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