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May 23, 2018, 1:46 p.m.

Vox’s new Netflix series is really good, but it doesn’t get us any closer to figuring out what news on streaming platforms looks like

The real revolution in video news will be when someone, someday, figures out a way to make timely, high-quality, democratically useful news work natively on a streaming platform.

Vox’s new series for Netflix debuted this morning, with the simple and deeply on-brand title Explained. (At least they didn’t get comma-happy and go with “, Explained.”) I watched the first episode and bits of the next two, and they’re good!

The format will be familiar to anyone who’s watched Vox’s YouTube videos; they’ve posted the first episode, “Monogamy, Explained,” to YouTube, and as a Vox producer says in the intro: “If you like our YouTube, you’re going to love this.” Watch it for yourself:

A lot of YouTube commenters do indeed seem to like it. (“Next level video essays. I freaking love this”; “YESSSSS MORE KNOWLEDGE”). Well, at least the ones who aren’t arguing with the video’s implicit endorsement of polyamory. (“VERY VERY POLITICIZED KNOWLEDGE YESS”; “Ahhh even more liberal vox garbage, Netflix has gone by the way of the dodo bird”; “Vox, attempting to destroy the social fabric, one institution at a time”; “Dear vox, stop being buzzfeed”. Don’t read the comments, basically.)

There are some distinctive editorial and aesthetic choices being made here. Most Vox videos to this point have been in the 6–8-minute range; the Netflix episodes posted so far are 16–18 minutes each. (That’s a length Netflix has been targeting more aggressively lately; it moved forward on a set of 15-minute comedy specials earlier this year.)

On YouTube, Vox videos are structured around sub-channel series focused on a specific topic, like Carlos Maza’s media-centric Strikethrough, Joss Fong’s science-focused Observatory, or Estelle Caswell’s music-driven Earworm. In nearly all of those videos, the producer/host/narrator is front and center, spending a lot of time on screen — the sort of thing that might drive a personal connection of the sort that leads to hitting the “subscribe” button. On Netflix — less interactive and more of a lean-back medium — the narrators are all off-stage. (Two of the first three episodes aren’t narrated by Vox staffers at all, but actors Maria Bello and Samira Wiley. Fong handles the third.)

I was looking forward to these videos because Vox and Netflix are two significant actors in a question that’s been on my mind for a while: What is the post-cable future of news in video form?

In other words, how can we reconcile this knotted mix of facts (or at least things I think are true):

Lots and lots of people get their news from television. Probably not you, dear Nieman Lab reader, who would have been a dedicated newspaper reader 20 years ago, scrolls through Twitter and morning email newsletters today, and considers TV a fundamentally dumb medium. (I stereotype, but only a little.) As of 2016, more people got news from local TV broadcasts than all online sources combined.1

— That said, people sure do love getting video on their devices! Years of talk about cord-cutters and cord-nevers have finally evolved into reality. Young people are fleeing “TV” for streaming platforms; my 3-year-old has no idea what “TV” is other than the big screen he can play his YouTube videos on.

The 20th-century technology of TV in America provided an artificial subsidy to local news. I’m talking about distribution via broadcast towers (whose power defined the circle of land that became a media market) and the extremely limited competition created by constrained broadcast spectrum, divvied up by the feds in each market. If the unit of broadcasting was to be a local TV station, it made sense for the content they produced to be local too, and news made a ton of sense in that context. And when there were only 3 or 4 stations in a city, they were likely all broadcasting news at the same time every evening — meaning directing at least some attention to those friendly anchors behind the desk was the default choice in millions of households, no matter their actual interest in seeking news out.

In the switch to streaming, much of that subsidy for local news goes away. Hell, most the subsidy for TV news period goes away. Real-time broadcasting favors real-time news and information; the economics of streaming platforms only work if the content they produce has value over a longer period of time. (Which is why Netflix has lots of documentaries and no nightly news.) The more content choices people have to pick from, the fewer of them choose news. The rise of cable moved the number of choices from a handful to a couple hundred; streaming platforms like Netflix and YouTube raise that to millions.

So, given that set of audience behaviors, technological facts, and business incentives: How do you create civically useful news that works, at scale, in video form? When the tens of millions of Americans who currently rely on local and network news switch their eyeballs to asynchronous streaming, will they get any news at all? The news industry has only the scars from a thousand pivots-to-video (and a thousand failed video strategies more broadly) to show for its efforts so far.

Vox is interesting here because, unlike the vast majority of news organizations, it has always conceived of its text products and its video products separately. Vox videos are not Vox stories gussied up in moving-image form; they are their own distinct product targeting their own distinct market. In text — a quick-turn, low-production-cost medium — providing hourly updates on the latest twist in the Mueller investigation makes perfect sense. But it would be a dumb strategy for high-production-value video. And longish examinations of “Monogamy, Explained” make less sense in a text story that’ll soon be buried in the archives than in a video that can be algorithmically pushed to YouTube users forever. This means that most Vox videos are not what I’d consider “news” — more like “smart content for a curious, engaged audience” — but it’s still a thoughtful strategy.

Netflix is interesting here because, well, it’s Netflix. It has 125 million paying subscribers; it is producing more movies per year than most major movie studios combined; it is the default lean-back behavior in millions of people’s evenings. If anyone can choose to direct human attention toward quality news in video form, it’s Netflix.

But the company has resisted that mission. In March, MarketWatch reported that “Netflix is poised to enter the TV news business,” specifically with a weekly show to rival 60 Minutes. “Netflix have spotted a hole in the market for a current affairs TV show encompassing both sides of the political divide and are seeking to fill it,” it quoted “a TV executive” as saying. Yay! Netflix wants to do news!

Not so fast — at the next available opportunity, Netflix head of content Ted Sarandos was quick to say nuh-uh: “Our move into news has been misreported over and over again. We’re not looking to expand into news beyond the work that we’re doing in short-form and long-form feature documentary.”

Some have pointed to this Vox series as evidence of Netflix’s interest in news. But again, this is the video side of Vox, not the text side. It still has that streaming DNA that optimizes for a long shelf life.

To be clear, this is by no means a critique of any of the parties involved here; the series looks really good, I’ll probably watch every episode, and if you invest 18 minutes in one, you’ll come out smarter and better informed on the other side. They’ve shifted to a new medium, and they’re playing to that medium’s strengths. But it is a little disappointing that even with smart, well-resourced people on all sides, this project doesn’t get us any closer to figuring out what news should look like in this new world.

The real revolution in video news will be when someone, someday, figures out a way to make timely, high-quality, democratically useful news work, natively, on a streaming platform. We haven’t figured out how to do that yet. The one thing we know is that that particular revolution won’t be televised.

Notes
  1. The Internet caught local TV news in 2017, and will likely pass all TV news (local/network/cable) this year. Still, a lot of people watch local TV news!
POSTED     May 23, 2018, 1:46 p.m.
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