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Jan. 20, 2012, 10 a.m.

It’s not TV, it’s Reuters TV: Rethinking a news channel for online audiences

The media company wants to bridge the worlds of tv and online video and make something entirely different.

“We are deliberately not doing television on the web.”

As strategies go, that sounds like a solid start for Reuters TV, which launched this week as a YouTube channel and a new destination on Reuters.com. But what Barclay Palmer, Reuters global executive producer, was getting at is that, while sharing some commonalities with cable and network news, Reuters TV won’t just be CNN, MSNBC, or FOX News recreated for YouTube.

That’s because Reuters TV is an experiment in just what exactly online video news could become. It’s territory still largely uncharted, with the bulk of online news video coming from network and cable news, comprised of show segments and individual reports sliced up in easily digestible bits. (And online news video is, of course, just a tiny fraction of all web video.) For networks, that has meant carrying over much of the classic TV form — shot selection, editing, story length, set design — to the web, whether or not it matches up with the desires of online audiences.

That’s likely one of the reasons YouTube, which is branching out into original programming through partnerships, wanted a friend like Reuters. YouTube offers reach, Reuters offers the global news-gathering operation: Reuters + YouTube = the potential for a next generation news network. When I talked with Palmer, whose TV experience includes The NewsHour on PBS, Anderson Cooper 360, and others, he said Reuters has a chance to create a whole new experience for news video online.

“Reuters has this great tradition of providing smart content to news outlets, but it hadn’t really been in this business,” he said. “There’s a great opportunity to bring Reuters into online programming.”

What they plan to offer on the new channel is a mix of news and analysis on politics, finance, technology and other news from Reuters personalities like Chrystia Freeland, Felix Salmon, and Anthony De Rosa. Along with more interview-driven fare, they’ll also produce shows based around the U.S. presidential election, investigative reporting, and video from journalists in the field. It’s TV-esque — up to a point. There will be people chatting mingled with rich visuals, but the production style will be more casual, with less of a network polish and more of the energy of an upstart, Palmer said.

The advantage for Reuters is that there are few hard and fast rules for what works in original online video when it comes to news. “I think that in television, people are used to an architecture of the way programming works that gives a sense of familiarity and predictability that is comforting,” he said. None of that exists online, and that’s a good thing to Palmer. Take length: There’s a widespread belief that online video must be short in order to keep viewers attention — but Hulu and Netflix have proven people will happily watch something longer than two minutes on the web (yes, it’s entertainment content, but still). Reuters TV shows will be tailored both in shorter clips and in full programs to give viewers options and to make the content more sharable. On the production side, Palmer said, that’s a plus. “The advantage of online programming is you’re not held to 60 minutes or 48 minutes of programming,” he said. “You can end wherever it feels right to end.”

One way TV and online mirror each other is in the emphasis on personalities. Viewers want to feel like they can make a connection and be in contact with journalists, Palmer said, which is one reason YouTube is a useful platform for a news channel. It helps that a chunk of Reuters TV’s talent already have healthy Twitter/Facebook/Tumblr followings. “You need authentic people who are compelling,” he said. “You don’t need a $300 hairdo or a voice you think could be Shakespearian. People have to connect with viewers in a genuine way.”

Reuters has been spending a lot of money in recent years beefing up their news division, and investing money in launching an online TV channel — even one using existing talent — isn’t cheap. Think of it as buying pre-distressed jeans at the Gap: They’re spending money, but they don’t want to look like it. In Reuters’ case, that’s because they want to fit the aesthetics of web video, a look that’s a little rougher around the edges but one that’s inviting to audiences.

Nielsen is reporting that more people are watching video across multiple platforms, from their TVs to laptops, tablets and phones. At the same time, TV manufacturers are increasing the production of Internet-capable sets, and companies like Apple and Google are developing TV offerings not dependent on traditional networks. Meanwhile, Netflix and Hulu are focused on developing original scripted shows (or bringing back old ones — come on!).

Media companies are looking at this and responding, with the New York Times TimesCast series, the Wall Street Journal’s WSJ Live, and more. This past week, rumors perked up about the possibility of a Huffington Post streaming news channel. Reuters and the rest of these organizations are chasing the dream: A new market for online news video, bringing in new advertising and reach new audiences, but built in part on the same news-gathering staff already in place. “There is an increased offering of video online from news outlets and we can see a slow, but massive movement of people taking in video news online,” Palmer said.

One question hanging over the collaboration between YouTube and Reuters, is how well YouTube — normally a diversionary network of memes, old music videos, and clips from 1980s TV shows — can work as a news portal. Will it be able to build a persistent audience for news — not just fly-by users who pass through searching for specific clips (like, say, when I’m trying to remember what was the theme from Harcastle & McCormick)? Or will there at least be enough fly-bys to matter? (At posting, the 10 most recent Reuters TV clips on YouTube had a total of 1,265 views. The clip above, from an interview with Russian billionaire/New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, had 7.) Will people deliberately go to YouTube for news? Again, here is where Palmer sees the problem of distinction: If the audience has already changed the way it consumes video, either through delayed watching on DVRs and Tivo, or on-demand video through cable or the Internet, there’s no real measure yet of how a project like this will succeed. If there’s a seismic change coming in video, and Palmer believes there is, Reuters TV is playing the long game. “Cable took years to make money,” Palmer said. “As the distinction between broadcast and cable is eroding, so will the distinction between broadcast, cable and online.”

POSTED     Jan. 20, 2012, 10 a.m.
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