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.
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.
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.
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.
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.