HOME
          
LATEST STORY
A mixed bag on apps: What The New York Times learned with NYT Opinion and NYT Now
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE

Second screen first: Oscar night lets The New York Times explore being a live-event companion

A bad night for the Academy gave the Times a chance to work on its second-screen offerings, led by A.O. Scott and David Carr.
Feb. 25, 2013, 5:43 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

For New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, the thought of enduring this year’s Oscars — and host Seth MacFarlane in particular — alone at home on the couch was not a happy one. “I’d be in a state of metaphysical despair,” he said.

Lucky for him, he spent the night instead working alongside his buddy, Times columnist and media reporter David Carr, as the two provided live play-by-play and running commentary of Oscar night, on the paper’s website and across its other digital platforms. Depending on your point of reference, the night was very Statler and Waldorf or, as Scott says, “A Mystery Science Theater 3000 type of thing.”

It also represents the next step for the Times as it expands its coverage of live events and tries new approaches to second-screen viewing. On NYTimes.com, the video was only one component of a lively Oscars page that included live discussion with Times reporters and critics, photography, social media, and an interactive Oscar ballot.

“What you can’t say is — don’t say ‘sideboobs.’ ‘Sideboob’ is — that’s verboten.”

The classic second-screen scenario involves sitting on the couch with a smartphone or tablet, and the Times’ Oscar efforts shined in its app for iPhone and iPad, where you could literally have Scott & Carr in the palm of your hand while you watched a snappy show tune about, well, boobs — you watching the show tune, Scott & Carr watching the show tune, you watching Scott & Carr, Scott & Carr reading your tweets. “It was built as a mobile experience from jump, and that was the whole idea,” Carr told me Monday.

That appears to be where people spent most of their time Oscar night. More than half the traffic to the Oscars dashboard came from mobile, Fiona Spruill, the Times emerging platforms editor, said.

The Times — a huge national and international news brand — lines up naturally with the huge live events that can assemble a big audience — a presidential debate, an election night, a Super Bowl. Each of those shared experiences generates shared conversations, and the Times wants to be in them. That means adding to the discussion through content, but it also means creating a platform — serving as a host. A show like the Oscars — which can be unpredictable in production, if not always in the outcome of the winners — is a natural opportunity. “It’s a strange phenomenon,” Scott said. “It’s one of these broadcasts that millions and millions of people tune into, but a lot of people don’t especially like.”

The goal, more or less, is to create the atmosphere of an Oscar party at your friend’s house, Carr said. The second-screen approach has moved beyond novelty to something media companies have to have a plan for, Carr said. The combination of video, live blogs, and Twitter, is a way of annotating any event and creating new value for people, Carr said.

“This is Seth MacFarlane. And this is my spoken word performance of Seth MacFarlane.”

Regular Times readers may be accustomed to the sight of Carr and Scott at a shared desk in the Times newsroom (and their brand of chemistry) thanks to The Sweet Spot, the video series launched last year hosted by the duo. The Oscars livecast expanded on the format, as the two dissected everything from offensive jokes to the merits of the orchestra “playing someone off,” along with contributions from Times writers on speakerphone breaking down things like red carpet fashion.

Like many things the Times does, the Oscars production was a big undertaking, involving video producers, editors, photographers and reporters on both coasts. But while they prepped a few talking points and conversation topics, Carr described the night as “incredibly seat of the pants,” and it showed in the loose, conversational tone. Think of all the careful craftsmanship that goes into honing the lede of a major front-page Times story, all the tight editing, the measuring of each word — and then forget all about it.

There were props, like a remote control helicopter to symbolize “Zero Dark Thirty” and beards and top hats for “Lincoln,” (obviously) — all live from the Times newsroom, with the evening shift’s editors wandering around within camera view. For a guy who has lived primarily in print and segued to video, Carr said he was a little anxious about wearing fake beards and working without a net. “I was determined to get through the night without cussing,” Carr said.

“Oh, wow — it rubbed out his soul.”

Video and mobile are very much front of mind to the Times at the moment — two of Arthur Sulzberger’s stated areas of emphasis. Last year new features in to the iPhone and iPad offerings to allow in-app video. They also increased the production of video shows as well as live events. That trend should continue as Rebecca Howard, formerly of Huffington Post Media Group, joined the Times as general manager of video production and as former Times assistant managing editor Rick Berke was named director of video content development. And of course the Times Company’s new CEO, Mark Thompson, comes with an extensive background in video thanks to his time at the BBC.

The Times was preparing for Oscar night long before award season started: Julie Bloom, culture web editor for the Times, said they applied lessons, and templates, from previous events like the 2012 Summer Olympics and the election to the Oscars dashboard. But there were many moving parts, Bloom said, involving various departments at the Times, from reporters to video producers, photographers, and developers working on things like the Red Carpet Project. While the Times takes its Oscars coverage seriously, the night itself makes for a good technology test run for events of more consequence. “That’s the nice thing about the Oscars too: It’s fairly low stakes,” Bloom said. “We feel this is a place we can experiment a little bit.”

Brian Hamman, deputy editor of the Times interactive news team, said they purposefully made the Oscars site responsive so that it would be accessible on any platform, including mobile. The Oscars site opens up in a web wrapper in the Times iOS apps, but it was also available through mobile browsers. Hamman said they knew a good chunk of their audience would be on smartphones and tablets, so they built the entire Oscars experience from that perspective and scaled it up. The goal, Hamman said, was to make the user experience so good that people no longer think of it as the second screen: “It’s almost a first-screen experience,” he said.

“Ben Affleck and I went to the same summer camp.”

This is the Times’ third go-round for live Oscars coverage online. The first attempt was basic counter-programming — think Puppy Bowl — a webcast that only went live during commercial breaks. Last year, they produced a webcast in front of a live audience at the Paley Center, an outing that Carr called “something of a disaster.” Being funny in front of a room of people is a different beast than sitting in front of a camera talking to the Internet, he said.

Of course, the difficulty of being funny in front of others proved to be one of the biggest topics of conversation Sunday. (Not everyone thought the Times’ show succeeded on that count.) The Oscar broadcast itself provided the usual Hollywood brand of puff and circumstance; Scott said the night “ran the gamut from offensiveness to tedium.” But Oscar’s stumbles (figuratively and literally, in Jennifer Lawrence’s case) are the kind of fuel the Internet feeds on. That’s something that may outlast the shelf life of Sunday’s Oscars: “They almost seem to be engineered to be unmemorable,” Scott said.

POSTED     Feb. 25, 2013, 5:43 p.m.
SEE MORE ON Mobile & Apps
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 15,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
A mixed bag on apps: What The New York Times learned with NYT Opinion and NYT Now
The two apps were part of the paper’s plan to increase digital subscribers through smaller, targeted offerings. Now, with staff cutbacks on the way, one app is being shuttered and the other is being adjusted.
The newsonomics of new cutbacks at The New York Times
The Times found success with its first round of paywalls, disappointment with its second. Is it hitting a paid-content ceiling?
With limited time to revamp WNYC’s Schoolbook, John Keefe decided to take his team on the road
The new Schoolbook will have targeted emails, major content partnerships, three languages, and more — and building it took just seven days.
What to read next
751
tweets
Wearables could make the “glance” a new subatomic unit of news
“The audience wants to go faster. This can’t be solved with responsive design; it demands an original approach, certainly at the start.”
677Designer or journalist: Who shapes the news you read in your favorite apps?
A new study looks at how engineers and designers from companies like Storify, Zite, and Google News see their work as similar — and different — from traditional journalism.
596Ken Doctor: Guardian Space & Guardian Membership, playing the physical/digital continuum
The Guardian is making its biggest bet on memberships and events by renovating a 30,000 square foot space to host live activities in the heart of London.
These stories are our most popular on Twitter over the past 30 days.
See all our most recent pieces ➚
Encyclo is our encyclopedia of the future of news, chronicling the key players in journalism’s evolution.
Here are a few of the entries you’ll find in Encyclo.   Get the full Encyclo ➚
El Faro
Twitter
WikiLeaks
New York
PBS NewsHour
Demand Media
The Miami Herald
The Wall Street Journal
The Daily Telegraph
PBS
The Huffington Post
Apple