Rethinking TV news part II: Experiments with forms and models

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.

webcast1TV 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.

Brady-Bunch-GridBut 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 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.

russertWhy 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 film dialogueSilent (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.

  • which should spread to music, selll me all 24 tracks and let me mix my own versions… to sports tv, have twenty cameras, let me choose my views …

  • davemacdo

    You’re absolutely right about the value of a story being in the explainers, Jeff. Think of how valuable this could be for stories that touch on niche subjects. Maybe a journalistic enterprise would be a collaboration between journalists that get the new stories and the subject experts that explain the nuances. The library of explainers would be built over time. Sites could be known for having the smartest experts that explain things most clearly. (I’m thinking of Carl Sagan.)

    Or, get this, what if the explainer was [buzzword alert!] unbundled from the news? What if you subscribed to a science explainer service the way you subscribe to the AP wire? There would be competition specifically for the expert explanations, separate from the competition for the best news (whatever that means).

    I’m not sure how this fits in to TV, though. The problem would be that if you’re getting your news in video and audio, you can’t have a pop-out video-and-audio explainer. You can display two texts side-by-side: read one, then the other. But it’s much harder to ignore audio and video playing (much to my chagrin).

    I agree with Gregorylent that I would like to choose my camera when watching sports. The default is just to follow the ball, but people that really love a sport know that the really interesting stuff is what’s happening “off the ball.” In fact, NBC allows this on their Sunday Night Football broadcast, which is streamed on the web for free. You can’t choose just any angle, but you can pick from about four cameras. My favorite is the “cable cam,” the robotic thing that flies above the field.

  • Andrew Tyndall

    Jeff — are you really discussing the medium of television here? or do you mean video content online? I personally believe there will be no such thing as television ten years from now. But in the meantime, your suggestions for the upcoming transitional decade appear to apply only to the online video future, not to the current practice of producing television newscasts. cheers — Andrew

  • What networks need to start getting away from- like teachers are starting to understand as well- is that they are no longer the authority. The listener and consumer is the authority, because we, in fact, probably heard or know the news (or the knowledge) before they say it. We have the Internet.

    Start to think of things totally non-linear. If we go along with the notion like Andrew says, then TV is dead. With that, I picture a place like TWiT, or like my podcast network, where a network will broadcast on tons of topics simultaneously- all the time.

    So if we use NBC as an example- instead of having one channel or two- will have…. 20, 30, or 50 channels broadcasting on micro-topics like iPads in education, NFL football, Movie reviews, cooking- each building their own community of listeners and going very much in depth on those topics.

    Now- when there is real breaking news- that’s when all channels will halt and bring it over to the main news channel for REAL news. There’s a bombing or a school shooting. On mobile- we’d get an alert from our NBC app- then go about our business as we listen or watch “higher order programming.”

    It’s sad to see the news holding on to being that authority. It’s like right now they are just telling us to watch and “wait for it…..wait for it.” By now we’ve turned the channel or cancelled cable altogether.

    They could be so much more if their mission was to help educate their audience- as opposed to just notifying us about stuff we already know.

    The Network that creates the best community- will win this.

  • Wandered around the European equivalent of NAB, IBC, in Amsterdam. It struck me that television was just an app – an important one mind you, and part of an active video catalogue. My iPad isn’t a second screen – it’s the first screen, replacing the remote control. I’m always amazed to see the difference on sites like BBC World where you can see what is being read and shared and what the journalists believe are the top stories. Yes, trivia is widely read, but so are the serious stories – news I can really use.

    I hate event journalism especially around births and funerals. Utter waste of my time.

    I agree that Leo Laporte and the TWIT team are re-inventing tech journalism. They give ideas room to breathe. I subscribe to TWIG, TNT and Triangulation. Especially the last one has given my incredible, useful insights into many intelligent people. Leo teases out the best in people – it’s because he’s a good listener.

    Twit hasn’t yet worked out how to curate the great content they’re making into a much more accessible interface. May be they could use a voice activated bookmarking technology to do much more detailed tagging as they go along? I’m sure they could sell subscriptions to edited summaries around a particular topic – a briefing on what specialists say about a topical issue. I know that Leo likes “live”, but the best content they make puts issues into context a few days after. It’s considered opinion.

  • On a related note- I really like when you talk media on TWiG. Any chance you could do a weekly show a la On The Media? I’d like to see that conversation going.

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  • mike smith

    Al Jazeera America has a daily show called The Stream that already does this. AAJAM
    also has a science show called TechKnow.

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