Allow me to speculate on new forms and models for TV news after Part I of this post looked at what’s broken and what’s possible.
TV with many eyes: First, a tale… Roger Ailes’ brilliance at Fox News was economic, not political. He realized that chatting about the news rather than gathering it would get higher ratings at a far lower cost. Just one weakness: The Fox folk need someone to chat with. I know because I used to work a block away and was often called in at a moment’s notice to blather, but when the guest they really wanted arrived, they gave me the bum’s rush. So I was talking with an old friend, former boss, and News Corp. executive many, many years ago, telling her about the wonders of these newfangled things called webcams. Put one of those in Judge Napolitano’s house and office and he can come on the air to yammer about the latest trial at a moment’s notice. She had me talk with some Fox VP about the notion and he dismissed it out of hand because, of course, the quality [lower voice to stentorian TV voice when saying this] was not broadcast quality. (I am relieved I did nothing in the service of Fox News.) But of course, soon thereafter, his own network proved him wrong as Oliver North was jerkily (in as many definitions of the word as you like) broadcasting from the Iraq war over satphone. And I was doing regular segments on MSNBC’s Coast to Coast from my den at home. Suddenly and briefly webcams themselves were hot. Now they are indeed used to bring remote guests on screen.
But webcams still have not been used to their fuller potential. Since those days, I’ve wanted to see a show that could call on a panel of guests — new voices, like old people ready to talk about a change in Social Security or geeks about the latest from the NSA. Imagine Wolf Blitzer’s giant screen as a matrix with a dozen people on it, and below each is a line of text — now a tweet — with his or her thoughts so Wolf can point to any of them to bring them on air. That was my old idea.
I was talking with someone smart about this the other day and he asked why we’d need Wolf. The audience is Wolf. A user, given a proper tool, can select who to hear from and broadcast the result: May the best show win. The audience can also go out and find new streams and add them to the mix. Imagine how useful that would be at a live event with many cams and phones trained on the action from different perspectives. Imagine, too, that the people formerly known as the audience can be a resource to answer questions (that’s what the chat room does in TWiT shows) or ask questions and thus direct coverage.
Now a webcam is far more than a cheap, remote camera without a satellite truck. It is a window onto new worlds of witnesses, experts, commentators, and people affected by the news: new voices, new perspectives. The prototype tool for this pretty much exists in Google+ Hangouts; I’d start experimenting with it to cover events and have topical discussions. Former local anchor Sarah Hill was a pioneer using Hangouts in her show. Huffington Post TV and TWiG have used Hangouts as well. But I think the tool can be pushed much more, having people use their phones not just for video selfies but for reporting from the field. Or when news breaks around an issue that affects one community’s or another’s lives, instead of having the same old “experts” on, why not seek out the voices of those affected by the news and have them on to get new perspectives? Or when you do have an expert, instead of having just one interviewer question her, why not have more experts or more people from an affected community ask their questions? There are a million TV cameras out there now. There are a million possibilities.
The (very) latest: Cable news’ greatest strength — breaking news — is also its greatest weakness, for after someone has read to us what’s known now, they just keep repeating the same facts (or speculations) and looping the same video, trying to fool us into thinking we’re up to date when they might not be. That’s because they have the constantly open maw of a channel to fill and they have competitors.
Online, I can imagine another way to cover breaking news, inspired by Wikipedia. Wikipedia offers a snapshot of what is known now. If nothing new emerges in an hour, no one feels compelled to update the page. Imagine if an online news service offered us the promise of (a) summarizing what is known about a breaking story now, (b) updating only when something new is know, and (c) alerting us when that occurs and giving us the choice whether to watch the latest. So we go watch a video on, say, Yahoo or NBC, to get the latest, whether that takes two or five or 10 minutes to report. Then we can go away and do other things, secure in the knowledge that when more is known, we can be alerted to watch a new video. This benefits the provider because we have elected to follow or subscribe to its updates (a la Cir.ca). If the provider abuses the privilege and sends us constant alerts, we’ll soon ignore that boy crying wolf. If you come into the middle of a story and need background, well, see the next idea.
Explainers and backgrounders: A bit of background before I get to the idea about background: I’ve been thinking a lot lately about deconstructing the time-honored article into assets and paths. When I draw an inverted pyramid in my classroom — the lede or what’s new on top, the nut paragraph that sums up the story next, the background paragraph next, and so on — I tell the students that the background graph ill serves everyone, giving too little to the newcomer and too much to the expert. What should it be online? I ask. A link, they dutifully respond. A link to what? Where to do we get our background these days? Wikipedia. Where do we get what’s new? Often Twitter. Where do we get explainers? Places like the Economist. Thus the article is unbundled into assets that can be made and maintained by various parties with various paths through them. Well, can’t TV — once freed of its linear prison — do the same?
Now imagine if one built and maintained a storehouse of explainers and backgrounders. They would not be ephemeral, gone with the last minute as on old TV. They would be assets that can get viewers and links over time, building value and reputation. They can also be updated. Video, known for dumbing down the news, could smarten itself and us up.
Why video? Because, as I said in Part I, TV is good at explaining and demonstrating things. Explaining need not mean going crazy with computer graphics and interactivity or those now-hackneyed whiteboard animations with the hyperactive, disembodied hand making cute but uninformative pictures. No, I mean somebody who knows what the hell she’s talking about standing in front of a white board and ‘splaining something. That reminds me of the greatest invention in the history of television news graphics: Tim Russert’s whiteboard.
Backgrounders are a close cousin to explainers. Now return to the idea above about breaking news: You are watching updated segments giving you the latest on a developing story. But you don’t want to hear the background over and over again. Or if you come into the story late, you need background. So why not separate that into a distinct asset that can be maintained and updated, a la Wikipedia but with video and photos as appropriate?
Silent (mobile video) movies: Media of all sorts are looking at mobile as just another content-delivery mechanism. I think it is many other things — a relationship-building tool (more on that soon) and also a time-waster. How do we use our phones most of the time? Not to make phone calls, but to (1) communicate by other means and (2) kill a few minutes while we’re waiting in line at the bank or waiting for a bus — that is when we encounter content. In those moments, most of us are not going to browse through a dozen pages on a news site or get ourselves some of that long-form journalism we hear so much about now and we’re not going to bother to get out earphones so we can watch and listen to TV news. And unless we’re assholes (like the ones on the Acela who don’t just talk on the phone but talk on the speakerphone … but that’s a rant for another day) we’re not going to play the sound on video and disturb the others on line with us. So it occurred to me that news video for mobile should resemble silent movies: big text and muted video where the video is appropriate and not just there to fill time.
Depth (with the good bits): I want to see TV give me depth — rich interviews, as Leo Laporte suggested for Katie Couric in Part I (see Tim Pool’s 18 minutes with Kim Dotcom or any Howard Stern interview hitting an hour and a half), or full video of an event, say — but I also want to get to the good bits. So what I really want is a user interface that lets us deep-link into an annotate and thus share or embed those bits. Of course, that technology exists — you can share a YouTube video from any spot — but I don’t see much video news taking advantage of it because TV producers, like print editors, want to deliver finished products. But I’ll bet that the ironic result of letting people cut to the good stuff is that more people will watch long video and more producers will make it. So let the interview go on and on. Don’t choose the sound bites for us. Let us choose them. Or let us watch the whole thing. TV no longer forces us to watch one same-size-fits-all product; it can give us choice.
What other experiments in the form of TV news can you imagine?
In Part III, I’ll look at business models, at legacy TV, and at some of the comments left on these posts.