Television networks are good at producing video for broadcast. They haven’t always proven good at producing video for the web and mobile devices. What works on a big screen at 6:30 p.m. isn’t the same as what works on an iPhone.
NBC News is expanding its efforts in the original digital video arena and trying to bridge that divide. “We wanted to build a site that doesn’t feel like TV content chopped up for the web, but born for the digital age,” said NBC News president Deborah Turness on a conference call on Tuesday.
The network relaunched its website today with the goal of merging its television programming more fluidly with digital production, while simultaneously creating content for a digital-only audience. Design updates are meant to give the site a cleaner, more elegant feel and encourage what NBCNews.com executive editor Greg Gittrich called “continuous consumption.” (It also looks like a site designed for small screens first: It’s responsive, it features tablet-friendly large tap targets, and it asks you to navigate via the increasingly ubiquitous hamburger button, even on desktop. Even though NBCNews.com is now separate from MSNBC.com, you can detect some shared design DNA.) In addition, a new NBC app will launch this week, running off the same API as the website, allowing for what developers hope will be a more seamless user experience.
From a structural perspective, Turness says core digital teams will be working more collaboratively, and NBC producers will all be working to create multiplatform content. Specifically, she cites an upcoming investigative project about the Snowden files, which originated with digital journalists at NBC but will soon air, in part, on the network.
In addition, NBC will feature native advertisements on its homepage as well as native ad placements in the navigation. They’ll also be experimenting with new formats for display ads.
Julian March joined the NBC News digital team as senior vice president of editorial and innovation last month from ITV, where he was instrumental in building a very popular, very webby news platform built around small, iterative updates meant to harness the power of social and mobile. March says that his history at both Sky News and ITV has provided him plenty of experience in converting news outlets into multi-platform publishers.
“What you see here really is the beginning of a much bigger, deeper, story which will be to a great extent the reincarnation of NBC News into the 21st century,” he says.
A lot of the activity in creating digital-first video has come from print outlets that didn’t have a broadcast legacy — think of The Wall Street Journal’s forays into WorldStream, or The New York Times’ efforts around projects like Op-Docs. TV news operations, already producing tons of video, sometimes defaulted to simply putting the same pieces online that appeared on air.
NBC is launching at least two individual products aimed at exclusively online eyeballs. One, called Debunker, features NBC personalities factchecking major news stories, or, as Gittrich put it, “pulling apart the conventional wisdom.” Gittrich says NBC will also be making a big investment in animated video with Show Me, which will be voiced by Win Rosenfeld, a senior editor who came to NBC from NowThis News. Before that, he worked for Nova, where he first became interested in using illustrations to make complex, abstract ideas more simple.
“The idea behind Show Me is there are some concepts that are hard to make into compelling web video, because they’re so entrenched in non-tangible things,” says Rosenfeld. “We can illustrate something like GDP or gas prices without having to show the usual b-roll of people lining up at the pump, or a cash register opening and closing.”
Animation is fun, but it’s also a relatively low-cost video production process that allows publishers to take advantage of high CPMs for video ads without investing in video teams to do time-consuming, on-the-ground reporting. Taiwan’s Next Media Animation has gotten the most attention recently for pursuing this strategy. (NPR is currently hiring a visual journalist with a background in animation, as is Vox Media.)
Rosenfeld was hired before NBC announced a major investment in NowThis News last month. NowThis specializes in making compelling, native video content across a wide variety of platforms, including Instagram, Vine, Zeega, and Snapchat. They’ll cover the same story at different lengths and different framings depending on what platform it’s being targeted on. Gittrich says that partnership is just one way NBC plans to pursue “original video for social and mobile.”
For example, NBC partnered with NowThis News on coverage of the Chris Christie bridge scandal, producing a video that summarized the those events.
And yes, they’ve also collaborated on a short video entitled “The Life and Times of Justin Bieber.”