Friday, November 14, 2014

CBSN: An experiment worth watching

Last week, CBS launched its own dedicated news channel, called CBSN. Unlike CNN, Fox News or MSNBC, CBSN isn't a cable news channel--it's only available over the Internet. In addition, unlike those cable networks, CBSN isn't (yet) a true 24-hour-a-day service; it has live content from 9 a.m. to midnight U.S. Eastern time on weekdays. I typically watch CBSN on my Roku box, but it's available on basically any device with a fast Internet connection and a web browser. When viewing it on a PC, tablet or smartphone, CBSN has a well-designed user interface that enables the viewer to go back and watch previous stories along with the live feed, and it also gives a preview of upcoming stories.

It's not the user interface or the fact that it's on the Internet that makes CBSN interesting, however; it's the way that the channel presents the news:
  • There are plenty of short feature stories, as we've come to expect from cable news, but there's also long, in-depth pieces with details that the 30-minute national news on CBS would never have time to give. These background stories, from reporters such as Pentagon reporter David Martin, provide much more insight than the cable networks usually give.
  • So far, CBSN is blissfully free of the spinmeisters and "instant experts" of the cable networks--it's largely hard news, not news and opinion whipped into an indiscriminate souffle.
  • With one exception, CBSN has so far stayed away from the "beat it to death" style of continuous coverage of a news story, such as CNN's infamous coverage of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. On Thursday, CBSN carried WCBS's wall-to-wall coverage of two window washers dangling from the side of World Trade Center 1. It was an obvious decision, but in hindsight, they could have cut away from time to time to at least give headlines.
  • There's a refreshing casualness to CBSN's anchors. Instead of the suit-and-tie look for men and power suits for women, there are shirt sleeves and open collars--exactly what reporters and editors wear in a working newsroom.
CBSN is going through teething pains; earlier this week, I saw the same segment start and stop three times, and they're having other "slight technical difficulties." However, that's to be expected. On the plus side, CBSN has access to CBS News's worldwide bureaus, local stations and affiliates, and it doesn't have the political conflicts that keep MSNBC and NBC News operating at arm's lengths from each other. That means that it has the resources to compete with any of the cable networks, but with the ability to operate at a much lower cost, because most of the money is already being spent to run CBS News, its owned & operated stations, and affiliates.

While CBSN is still evolving, it's already a good alternative to the cable networks, and it's likely to get better. My hope is that the service will soon start offering some weekend coverage, which might happen if an important news event breaks, or continues, on a weekend.

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