So how do we judge the impact of Katie Couric’s string of interviews with Sarah Palin? Certainly, we can see the value of journalistic questioning – “hey, I don’t think you answered my question, sweetheart” – especially as compared to the often-anemic performance of journalists throughout the campaign.
The impact of Couric’s interviews may turn out to be a turning point in this campaign. If they do, the Couric Effect will be well noted politically and journalistically. What's missing is a good discussion of the money metrics behind such journalistic moments.
It wasn’t the broadcast airing of the Sarah Palin interviews that grabbed public attention – it was the viral, emailed-around-endlessly impact of them, cascading from Wasilla to West Palm Beach, drawing guffaws and incredulous stares on both Wall Street and Main Street. Long-time Knight Ridder editor Walker Lundy’s highest compliment about a front-page story was that it was a “Hey, Martha,” grabber, exclaimed across the breakfast table. Well, the Couric interviews were “Hey, Martha” moments, welcome relief from the pundit babble.
How, though, do we measure that effect?
Bill Carter's coverage in the New York Times showed the problem.
"Still, the “CBS Evening News” gained only about 10 percent in audience from the previous week — and it was actually down from the same week the year before. The newscast averaged just under 6 million viewers for the week, up from 5.44 million the previous week. A year ago Ms. Couric’s program drew about 6.2 million viewers. (CBS was also a distant third last week behind ABC, which won with 8.07 million viewers, and NBC, with 7.98 million.)
The CBS newscast didn’t even record its highest audience totals last Wednesday and Thursday, when the interviews were broadcast. Monday was the network’s best-rated night of the week."
So broadcast ratings – the traditional measure of value and the way advertising is sold – were down. As the Times pointed out, though, web views were off the charts:
"1.4 million times on YouTube, while the parody of the interview on “SNL” was streamed more than 4 million times on NBC.com, viewed in full more than 600,000 times on YouTube and in shorter clips many more hundreds of thousands of times".
My own quick arithmetic shows that the real Couric-Palin interviews (SNL aside) have now been viewed more than 8 million times, though only about 15% of those were on CBSNews.com. CBSNews.com comes up first on Truveo, but farther down the list on YouTube. (Of course, CBS exacerbates the problem; try finding the still-much-viewed interviews on the CBSNews.com home page; when will legacy media get their basic placement and promotion act together?) The rest have been put up on YouTube by various non-official "sources." You could call it piracy.
The days of this piracy may be limited. Look no further than another election video hit, the Tina Fey Saturday Night Live parodies of Sarah Palin. On these, NBC claims to have kept 99% of those views on its own site. How?
The ability of YouTube, Dailymotion, Veoh, and Microsoft's Soapbox to track unauthorized clips and automatically remove them is the game changer, according to [NBC General Counsel Rick] Cotton. Executives from some of the big entertainment companies have been critical in the past of YouTube's efforts to protect copyright material, but now they say YouTube's filtering and take-down systems have dramatically improved.
So let's look at the economics.
Let's estimate that CBS can charge about a $30 cost-per-thousand rate, a good average for a pre-roll on a nationally branded interview. If CBS had monetized each of about the 1.5 million viewers on its own site with a pre-roll (it runs spots before some news videos, but not each one), it would have earned about $45,000. If CBS could have monetized all 8 million or so views, that number would increase to $240,000.
Let's compare that to what to what CBS earns on air. We can estimate that Katie Couric's third-rated newscast charges about $40,000 for each of its 16 or so 30-second ads, or about $640,000 in total for each night’s show. (On average, 30-minute programs carry eight minutes of commercials.)
So if CBS News had adopted NBC's principles -- I'd bet it soon will -- we can compare that potential $240,000 somewhat to the $640,000. Big comparison caveat, of course. The Couric-Palin interviews, though, were a once-in-a-year coup. Everyday news videos will earn far less.
Print publishers are familiar with the dilemma: In broadcasting, as in publishing, each legacy viewer is still worth a lot more than a transient internet user. Still, the spread appears to be narrowing in some interesting ways — if legacy media can get better and better at monetizing their own expensive-to-produce content.
One last point about valuing “content” going forward.
Broadcasters are using to valuing content by show, or 30-second segment – not by attaching value to individual pieces of content, like the Couric-Palin interviews. Newspapers are using to valuing content by day or by edition, not by individual story. Those metrics made sense in the analog era.
Going forward, though, I think we’ll be in a universe of units. Some news stories, some video clips and some podcasts are much more valuable than others. A minute few move markets. Some we can’t help but share with our few thousand closest “Friends” on Facebook. Others just break the tedium of the day.
On the Internet, each unit of content can be demarcated as a separate item, with a unique identifier, a Content SKU, perhaps. Then as it traipses around the digital universe, often with ad attached, its monetary value will be a lot to easier to judge. Journalistic value? That’s more askew than ever.
It’s like we’re living in the aftermath of a journalistic Big Bang, still picking up the pieces and learning to label them.