Networks Cool on Viewer News Video
ABC's Seen & Heard is one of just a few shows built with user content
By Anne Becker -- Broadcasting & Cable, 7/9/2006 8:00:00 PM
When the London subway was bombed a year ago, the work of “citizen journalists,” the often grainy footage shot on personal digital cameras and cellphones, was everywhere. Almost immediately, mainstream TV news organizations began a quest to fill their broadcasts with such freelance firepower.
But a year later, none of the major TV news organizations have included citizen journalism as a major part of their newscasts. The news networks' hesitancy to embrace content from viewers on-air has less to do with concern about video authenticity than with a desire to keep a certain level of quality and control.
TV news organizations' success depends on building trust with their viewers and establishing themselves as a dependable destination for viewers to learn the events of the day, and camcorder clips of stories, however newsworthy, aren't necessarily reliable or always ready.
So far, networks' efforts to ride the current wave of popularity for viewer-submitted video have been mainly for promotional reasons, such as NBC's deal to have the Internet video site YouTube host clips of its fall series. The network will create an NBC-branded channel on YouTube—which typically displays amateur contributions—to feature video and long-form promos, while YouTube will promote the NBC content throughout its site.
Perhaps more than any other network, ABC has tried to exploit user-generated content. ABC News Now, the digital news service from ABC, will this month launch a daily program based on content submitted by its viewers. Seen & Heard will solicit viewer video and questions for ABC News experts and news figures online and string them together into an hour-long 12:30 p.m. program, focusing each show on one issue, such as global warming or social security.
ABC's seven-day-a-week show is being designed as “a big daily electronic town meeting,” according to ABC News Digital Executive Producer Michael Clemente, aiming to empower viewers by harnessing technology to allow them to create the news rather than just passively watch it.
News Now has experimented with viewer-contributed content about a half dozen times in the two years since it launched, most successfully when it received 10,000 videos from viewers voicing their opinions on this year's State of the Union address.
“As much as there's traffic in funny video clips of pets and odd people dancing and all that that's out there, people really want a place to go where they think we're doing stories that matter,” says Clemente. “It's one thing to shout on talk radio or post something on a message board, but if you can talk back to people making the decisions, that will be very powerful.”
News Now's reach is tiny: It's available as a broadband channel and to 2 million cellphone users, as well as to subscribers to Verizon's FiOS service. Seen & Heard selections will be offered to ABC affiliates and to the network news programs like World News Tonight and Good Morning America, for incorporation into TV shows that reach a mainstream audience.
Nonetheless, News Now is still ahead of the pack in establishing a broadcast network's interest in more heavily incorporating video from viewers.
CBS News' efforts to empower viewers have so far been limited to “Assignment America,” largely on the evening news, where viewers vote on which stories the network pursues for a weekly segment. Like other news divisions, CBS News ran viewer video on Hurricane Katrina and the London subway bombings on-air only after vetting each submission. But unlike ABC, CBS does not plan to let viewers upload video to its Website.
“As a news organization, we have to verify the authenticity of any video before using it on our site,” says a CBS spokesperson.
NBC aired viewers' video footage of the London bombings, but the majority of its viewer contributions are in the form of e-mailed comments or questions on stories.
Current's high standards
No one understands demanding high standards of quality when it comes to viewer-submitted video better than Current, the youth-targeting digital cable channel that aims to fill its entire programming grid with content from viewers.
The channel culls viewers' Internet uploads—mostly short-form documentary footage—on diverse subjects ranging from AIDS in Africa to the style of hip-hop personality Missy Elliott, lets the viewers vote on which they would like to see on TV, and then reviews the content itself, paying contributors whose work makes the cut and ends up on TV.
In the year since its launch, Current has grown its distribution from 20 million to nearly 30 million homes and increased the amount of viewer-contributed content it programs from 10% to 30%. Despite the growth, the network still expects to program 40%-50% of content from viewers in its next year.
“We could be 100% if we wanted because we certainly have the volume of contributions,” says Current President of Programming David Neuman. “But we're keeping the standards very high. We're the highest-level quality of user-generated content—the absolute best and most compelling stuff.
“It's not home video at the dinner table of the adorable 2-year-old throwing his food.”
On cable, MSNBC launched a “Citizen Journalists Report” on its Website during Katrina, but at press time, the top viewer-contributed posting was dated Nov. 15, 2005.
MSNBC says it's working on technology to let viewers upload more video to its site. CNN, which calls on viewers to submit content for breaking-news stories, will shortly announce a plan to solicit viewer-contributed content, says CNN/U.S. Senior VP Sue Bunda. She says CNN puts viewer clips through the same vetting process as any other story that runs.
If advertisers are skittish about displaying their content on some user-submitted video Websites, they may feel safer about viewer-submitted content when it comes to network TV—especially news, media buyers say.
“Whatever appears has to have gone through their broadcast standards and practices,” points out John Rash, senior VP for media-buying agency Campbell Mithun. “While marketers will proceed with caution, there are multiple mechanisms in place to make sure that neither network nor advertiser is embarrassed.”
Entertainment networks like VH1 and Oxygen have also begun exploiting viral video's popularity, through contests; Oxygen received video submissions from 5,000 women hoping to be picked as contestants for its for its full-figured beauty pageant Mo'Nique's Fat Chance.
USA Network chose a 21-year-old who speaks backwards to win its online “Show Us Your Character Contest.” She will appear in USA commercials on TV and at movies.
ABC News Now, for one, is looking for viewers' help in covering the “stories that matter,” says Clemente. It will pair with Internet portals like Yahoo! to solicit viewer video for Seen and Heard's daily show.
Says Clemente, “This is about freedom and democracy in action: sending [video] in to something as visible as ABC News and have it play back on the air, and having your thoughts matter more than voting on American Idol.”
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