The future of the national broadcaster’s flagship news bulletin is in serious doubt as the full impact of digital disruption hits television news.
The 7pm news audience has declined steadily over the past five years, with younger viewers the fastest switching off.
The average age of viewers is now 65 with 82 per cent over 50.
Audience decline adds to the fear of irrelevance with the sense of a lack of differentiation from the ABC’s own continuous news channel.
In the 2016 Reuters Institute report, “What is happening to television news?”, Reuters Institute Director of Research Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Cardiff University Professor of Journalism Richard Sambrook said the rise of video-enabled Internet is the reason for the overall decline in people sourcing news from television.
“The loyalty and habits of older viewers prop up overall viewing figures and risk obscuring the fact that television news is rapidly losing touch with much of the population,” they said.
Executive Producer of The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, Chris Walker, says the practical limitations of news delivery on television is partly to blame for it’s decline.
“If you’re under 50 you’ve read most of your news at work before you get home… so everything you’re hearing at seven o’clock is obsolete because potentially you know more about the story at midday or at three o’clock or at five o’clock than TV is nimble enough to update you on,” he said.
ABC News Breakfast’s Acting Executive Producer, Emily Butselaar, links the decline in viewers to changing media habits.
“One of the things we know is that people don’t do appointment television like they used to, she said.
“At one point most of middle-class Melbourne sat down and watched the 7pm news. It was just part of life,” she said.
The once privileged position free-to-air news held in the limited broadcast market is being ravaged by the high-choice digital environment.
Technological developments around video-enabled devices, better mobile data plans and quicker broadband have pushed the decline in television audiences.
Unlike entertainment television that embraced digital innovation, leading to the current “golden age of television”, television news still needs to fully embrace change.
Nielsen and Sambrook insist that, “If television news providers do not react to the decline in traditional television viewing and the rise of online video – in particular, on-demand, distributed, and mobile viewing – they risk irrelevance”.
This hasn’t escaped the attention of the ABC’s managing director, Michelle Guthrie, who said in an interview on Radio National that “transformational changes” to the public broadcaster’s news operations were necessary for the year ahead.
“We lack the flexibility to quickly adjust to the fast-changing audience trends. Our reach on television and radio is declining and digital is struggling to bridge the divide, she said.
“I do feel that people are not turning to the 7pm news to find out what happened that day,” Guthrie said.
But there are notable exceptions to the trend.
In the book, News Values, Paul Brighton and Denis Foy say that as part of the evolution of television, news has been forced to offer a higher level of entertainment value.
“The reality is that the educative element (that all broadcasting should educate, inform and entertain) is likely to be sacrificed… [and] has forced a more liberal approach to the core news value of composition,” they said.
Stephen Harrington agrees and in his book, Australian TV News: new forms, functions, and futures, says the broad educative value of conventional news formats is overrated.
“Very often, ‘high modern’ journalism is seen as too boring, and of little value to anyone,” he says.
Shows that understand and embrace the balance of education and entertainment have bucked the trends and found new audiences.
As an example, the ABC’s Insiders is the highest rating morning show on Australian TV and the only ABC news show to grow its audience last year, up six percent.
The show’s host, Barrie Cassidy, credits the Walkley Award Winning mash-ups by editor Huw Parkinson for the show’s growing and younger-skewing audience.
Similarly, ABC News Breakfast grew its audience by 48 percent from 2013 to 2015 and Butselaar credits its success to a conscious change in tone.
“We’ve tried to bring a mix of light and shade… we know that people waking up to breakfast television want a mix,” she says.
Likewise, Channel 10’s The Project is the only news show to have truly captured the elusive 24 to 54-year-old market.
With the catchphrase – “news done differently” – the show squarely positions itself as an alternative to traditional news.
Former producer of The Project, Chris Walker, attributes the show’s youthful appeal to its celebrity panel, fast pace, use of pop music, and clever branding.
“The Project is produced like an entertainment show, but its core idea is news,” he said.
However, Guthrie says the ABC’s mission shouldn’t be about bringing audiences back to television.
“I think it’s about trying to find ways of not using just one platform, but thinking about different ways of reaching audiences on the platforms where they are,” she said.
In a recent speech at the Melbourne Press Club the Head of ABC News, Gaven Morris, said 70 percent of 25 to 34-year-olds use digital as their main source of news.
The challenge for legacy broadcasters is how to engage with those audiences moving to mobile, online, and on-demand platforms.
Morris outlined the ABC’s adapt-or-die approach to the digital challenge and its commitment to a digital-first newsroom.
“When we do [our highest quality journalism] really well for digital audiences and we think about the digital audience as an equal proposition to the broadcast audience you can pick up both audiences.
Calling this, “an equal digital life,” he said.
In the 2016 Reuters Institute report, Developing Digital News in Public Service Media, Annika Sehl, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Alessio Cornia noted that public broadcasters have the unique challenge of finite funding and a total reach charter.
“Public service media organisations often have considerable resources, but these are committed to existing services. Serious investments in new digital products therefore require senior leadership to make tough and often zero-sum decisions about where to cut elsewhere in the organisation and what projects to invest in” they said.
When funding is scares and the number of unique delivery platforms is rapidly multiplying not even the flagship is immune to intense scrutiny.
Moriss concedes this, saying, “If that means we do a little less on TV and radio to do a little more on digital then that is part of the equation — but only a part of it.”
“This is the dilemma for many public service media organisations: they still have to serve the mostly older audiences on radio and television, but at the same time they need to provide content for younger audiences on various digital channels.
“To succeed in the future public service media organisations have to be able to change – and continue to change – to develop their digital offerings”, Sehl, Nielsen and Cornia said.
It’s clear that the future is digital but Aunty’s flagship television news is still relevant and has life in it yet.
“That audience is dying very slowly… and they will be clinging to the 7pm news till they die,” Bustelaar said.