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Feb. 24, 2014, 11:31 a.m.
LINK: www.politico.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   February 24, 2014

That’s the question Dylan Byers at Politico asks in a smart piece worth a read:

Last July, The Washington Post launched a live video channel that its president proclaimed would be “the ESPN of politics.”

Instead, PostTV turned out to be more like a public access show. Within five months, the live content had vanished and the “channel” became little more than a clearinghouse for pre-taped video packages and recycled press briefing footage, along with the occasional original report.

What the Post learned in its video flop in 2013 is what The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, POLITICO and other large news organizations had discovered in years prior: Creating quality live television is expensive — the Post invested millions of dollars and dozens of staffers to Post TV — and much harder than it looks. The end result didn’t interest readers — or advertisers.

Video would not be the savior of online journalism.

Why haven’t video efforts at the Post, The New York Times, and elsewhere panned out? Byers argues it’s about quality:

Creating compelling television, it turned out, meant more than putting talking heads around a table. It required millions of dollars, new innovations, and, most important, experienced producers and compelling on-air talent…

“Is video alone going to save newspapers? Absolutely not,” said Bruce Headlam, managing editor of Times video. “A lot of newspaper people quite comfortably make fun of television people, but it’s very hard and very expensive to do what CNN, Fox, MSNBC do.”

There’s truth to that, but let me shade that argument a little. News org live online video has flopped in part because it’s often bad but more because it’s the wrong content for the wrong context. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News are filled with talented people, but it’s not as if their live video goes great gangbusters online. (Or on TV, for that matter.)

What’s the context in which cable news gets watched? With focused attention during big breaking news events, sure, but much more often as background noise. Either literally or as a kind of environmental monitoring — if something big happens, I’ll hear about it. And on an actual television — the kind with the big screen! — in a living room or an airport terminal, where you’re free to shift your attention elsewhere. (This is what the second screen is all about.)

What’s the context in which news orgs’ live online video gets watched? Usually, despite mobile’s gains, on a laptop or desktop computer. And usually during the work day, because that’s when news sites’ traffic is highest and when their live programming is scheduled. What’s happening on desktops during the work day? Usually people have something else they’re doing. It’s not driving 100 percent of their attention. Having a live news video show streaming in your browser either means that you can’t do anything else or you lose the visuals and slip over to another tab or another app. It’s an awkward merger of the first screen and the second screen, combining content designed for constant partial attention and devices designed for constant fiddling and multitasking.

Sure, there is plenty of live video that can be compelling enough to get past that. Plenty of people watched Olympic hockey this week at their desks at work; plenty more will watch the NCAA tournament in a few weeks; a gazillion people watched that Red Bull guy jump from space. But these are all hyper-compelling live events that demand attention — far more than news sites’ live video, yes, but also far more than 99 percent of what CNN can produce, too.

And CNN et al. also have the huge benefit of existing in a limited channel universe. Even with 500 cable channels, if you want TV news at any given moment, your list of options is limited. On the web, it’s virtually infinite.

So yes, there is a quality issue, but there’s also something about the awkward context of watching scheduled live news video in a web browser that makes widescale audience uptake a really tough nut to crack. If PostTV’s production standards and editorial quality were to improve 10 percent or 50 percent, I doubt it would make a huge difference. It’s not CNN’s video quality they’re chasing as much as CNN’s video context.

Capturing that context outside of television seems highly unlikely, no matter how immersive you try to make your video player. So that leaves two options: Wait for the television context to change, through the long-awaited appification of TV, or come up with new kinds of content that better match the context they’re stuck with.

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