Can a consortium of state broadcasters win the war for news viewers in the age of social media?
According to Michael Peters, Managing Director of Euronews, the future of television news will be turbulent: “We are all, in our industry, facing a big revolution,” he says. “We have no choice today but to adapt ourselves and to adapt our products.”
An enthusiastic veteran of nearly two decades at Euronews, the 40-something Peters recently took over the executive suite from one of the network’s founders and is now tasked with leading the pan-European enterprise into the digital age.
Euronews was born of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) - a confederation of 85 national broadcasting organisations across Western Europe, and was conceived at a time when Europeans were seeing the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 brought into their living rooms live by CNN.
CNN had pioneered the concept of 24-hour news programming, and its potential to challenge the traditional news format of highly-condensed reports aired at short, fixed intervals was obvious. Europe’s state broadcasters felt a European version of the format was needed, but no single broadcaster could compete with CNN’s resources. The answer: pool the resources of a number of national television organisations, and you have Euronews.
Euronews began broadcasting on 1 January 1993 from Lyon and it was soon evident that its strategy was sound. By establishing a single international newsroom that could draw on content contributed by the 21 national members of the EBU, the news exchange could compete on scale with CNN but with two critical advantages in a multi-national market: local knowledge and language.
Peters is understandably proud of this advantage: “If one of our competitors like CNN, CNBC or BBC World News opens an office in, for example, Istanbul, they will put an American or English person in charge of it and there will be an English or American point of view. We on the other hand put a Turkish correspondent in charge of our Turkish edition.”
Close to the source
Using the same strategy for all of its now 11 national editions, Euronews, is not only closer to the sources of its local news but, by broadcasting in the local language, closer to its audience as well.
“We think that it gives us a richness of points of views, of perspectives, that the others do not have," Peters told INSEAD Knowledge. “And we really think that this can bring something new to the media landscape.”
The numbers would seem to back up Peters’ confidence: viewership of Eurovision is estimated at over six million viewers a day in the European market – far ahead of its competitors. Overall, says Peters “we have at least 7.5 million viewers, verified by an external company. Based on these real figures, we estimate that the figure is closer to 10 million per day in all of continental Europe but the exact number of viewers is quite hard to get because we are broadcasting in a lot of countries where the audience measurements are not exact."
But the reason the numbers are inexact are also part of Euronews' strength – they are reaching countries – 155 at last count - that are outside the established boundaries of their rivals. Countries such as the Ukraine are not yet on their competitors’ radar. But they will be.
“There are a lot of parts of the world that are considered on the sidelines for the time being,” says Peters, “but that are already very important for us. Eastern Europe, Central Asia …. We believe in a very broad notion of Europe: from the Atlantic to the Urals, maybe even to Afghanistan.”
North Africa too is part of the Euronews world – national broadcasters in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco are now part of the consortium and there are already offices in Cairo, Dubai, Doha as well. Linking it all together is Euronews' main bureau in Brussels, the biggest international newsroom in Europe.
Fitting the platform
But the battle for the future of television news will not just be over geography but over the very nature of what a news organisation provides. In Peters’ view, the days of one-size-fits-all are over.
"Euronews is developing into a general hub of information. It will be a kind of umbrella of editorial brands, and these umbrella brands will be parts of many EU delivery platforms - not just televisions. We have connected TV agreements with the world's leading electronics manufacturers - Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, LG, Loewe, Philips - and we are fast becoming the most prevalent news channel in the connected TV world."
"Information comes from everywhere and will go everywhere" says Peters. How extensively it is gathered depends on revenue and revenue will be generated and grown by new ways of customising the information delivery for the specific client.
Euronews has recently signed an agreement with Air France to provide a tailor-made in-flight news service and Peters sees many other major companies increasingly demanding - and paying for - bespoke services that build their own brand while delivering information. Peters is convinced that only the news organisations that can best deliver high quality content on multiple platforms round-the-clock to meet this demand will survive. And, obviously, he believes Euronews will be a survivor.
Battling on a shoestring
But though such optimism is to be expected from a CEO rallying his troops, a more objective analyst might point out that the road ahead for Euronews may not be smooth. Its overall budget of 60 million euros is only a tenth of the size of its main rival CNN and, of that, 40 percent comes from the European Commission and government-funded public television in the EBU consortium. This means being dependent on bureaucracies who play by different rules than private-sector businesses.
As if to illustrate this point, Euronews’ affiliate Rádio e Televisão de Portugal (RTP) has just pulled out of the EBU consortium in response to a government-mandated budget reduction.
And the 60 percent of revenues generated by advertising will surely be volatile as well. Much of this has come from traditional 30-second ads which are in decline as advertisers explore new channels online and new formats such as the sponsored “infomercial.”
Where does that leave the businesses that create television news? Expect not just incremental change, predicts Peters, but "something much more fundamental - more like a genetic mutation”.