Election 2016: The Apps Campaign

News organizations add more live video, improve news alerts and unveil more mobile-friendly designs to earn votes from viewers
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As the candidates work to ramp up their campaign organizations and increase TV ad spends to boost their chances in early 2016 primaries, news organizations are also investing heavily in a host of new features that they hope will help their apps attract the attention of potential users and voters.

Like the election itself, much is at stake. News orgs hope that improvements in these apps will help them not only stand out from the plethora of digital news providers, they also see these products as a way of bringing in new audiences that will continue to keep them relevant in the future.

“The age diversity we are seeing from CBSN and our digital products are very encouraging,” said Marc DeBevoise, executive VP/GM of CBS Digital Media at CBS Interactive. “When you look at the Evening News or CBS This Morning, they are probably averaging in the high 50s or the low 60s. But for these [digital products] we are seeing ages average in the high 30s and low 40s. That is tremendous development for us in the news business. It shows the importance of getting our content on all these devices to reach the next generation of viewers.”

APPETITE FOR LIVE

As part of that effort to pull in new audiences, all major TV news organizations are putting a greater emphasis on live video.

While viewers will experience this as a big change in their digital products, the dramatic increase in live video coverage for election 2016 is actually based on a major revolution in traditional TV news operations. While broadcasters once had to send out trucks and fairly large crews to cover events, all the major TV news orgs have now equipped individual journalists and producers with smaller cameras, cellular bonding technologies and other light, highly mobile technologies that allow them to record, edit and send back live video over IP connections.

Colby Smith, VP of digital at ABC News, noted that they first launched a multiscreen live-streaming video experience during the 2012 election for the conventions and debates and that live video is one of two top priorities for their election app coverage in 2016. “We are really going to blow this out in 2016,” he said.

“We’ve invested very heavily in the concept of live streaming and making it very easy for our correspondents and anchors to live-stream around the world,” added Smith, who also noted that they’ve set up a live editorial team to help manage those feeds.

Executives at CNN, CBS and NBC also stress the importance of those streams. “There is a lot of interest in live video,” said Amy Duco, director of products at NBC News. “We have live applications for mobile, Web and over-the-top and are very focused on making this even better throughout the election cycle.”

Some of those efforts have already produced impressive audiences. “Almost 1 million people saw the Republic and Democratic debates [live streamed] on CNNgo,” said Ed O’Keefe, VP of CNNMoney and CNN Politics. “When you consider that the live streaming for the Super Bowl was about 1.3 million, that is a phenomenal rate of adoption.”

This both expands the amount of coverage they can provide and helps change the viewing experiences with additional social media and interactive features to the stream, DeBevoise explained. CBS News, for example, put real-time Twitter trends, instant reactions, curated Tweets and other key information into the CBSN live feed of the Democratic debate on Nov. 14.

Fox has launched a separate Fox News Election 2016 app, which allowed users to score candidates while they watched the August GOP presidential debate and to interact with Fox News’ personalities and contributors without leaving the debate.

BLURRING THE LINES

In some cases, these live-streaming products blur the line between live and on-demand. The CNNgo product, for example, allows users who are watching the network’s live stream to also see upcoming or previously aired segments so that they could easily watch them when and how they wanted.

But all of this video creates a share of design issues. “A live election is very unpredictable,” Smith at ABC said. “The design challenge for the entire industry is that there will be more coverage than ever before in part because there are more candidates and in part because the technology allows us to produce a lot more coverage. But at the end of the day, our job is to clarify what is going on and to provide context for it.”

On the design front, the 2016 election might also be called the first “mobile first” election. While “mobile first” and “responsive design” techniques were relatively new phenomena in 2012, the rapidly growing usage of news and video on mobile devices has prompted all the major TV news organizations to adopt those approaches so that their apps are better arranged for mobile devices and a wider range of screen sizes.

For election 2016, that will greatly simplify the user experience on mobile devices. “In this election we are really thinking about how to front-load content for the mobile users so they can get at it faster and in a smarter way,” said NBC’s Duco.

Data, which has always been a major focus of election coverage, will be more important than ever, with NBC News announcing that it will work with the political data firm TargetSmart on election coverage, and ABC News closely collaborating with Nate Silver at fi vethirtyeight.com, which is owned by Disney/ABC.

But the growing importance of mobile does create still more design concerns. Interactive maps, for example, which work well on PCs, aren’t a good option for mobile, said O’Keefe at CNN, who added that they’ve spent considerable time redesigning products to address this. “The traditional desktop experience has to be thrown out and completely reconfigured for the mobile experience,” he said.

Despite the growing importance of video, this also means that text remains an important component of election coverage. DeBevoise noted that there are a number of situations where users don’t want to access video and that it helps drive traffic. “There are times when you may not have headphones or it is inappropriate to be watching a video,” he said. “Text still drives a ton of traffic to our site because content found through search and social still is typically found on the text side of the business.”

Those design challenges are compounded by the rapidly growing use of apps on connected TVs via sets that have their own built-in Internet connection, or those that are hooked up to game consoles or streaming media devices such as Roku, Apple TV, Amazon’s Fire TV and Google’s Chromecast.

“You have to support everything from 4-inch screens to 104-inch screens,” said DeBevoise, who added that streaming on connected TVs is rapidly increasing.

“On connected TVs we are seeing half-hours and hours of viewing while we see tens of minutes on mobile and desktop,” he said. “We think video works well across all devices and there is a lot of viewing on mobile. But there is more live-streaming on connected devices and more on-demand usage on the other devices.”

WEARING IT WELL

Election 2016 will also see some newer technologies such as virtual reality and wearables make their political coverage debuts.

Some of this fits into existing strategies. ABC, CBS, CNN and others are all making a major push to improve the news alerts they provide so that their coverage can be better personalized for individual viewers. “Improving our push alerts is a key strategy in the upcoming election and Apple Watch is ripe for that kind of usage,” said Smith at ABC.

Immersive political coverage is also on tap. CNN already tested virtual reality during the Oct. 13 Democratic debate with NextVR and both CNN and ABC plan additional VR efforts. “I think this technology is on the cusp of a breakthrough,” said O’Keefe at CNN.

But he and others caution that it is still early days. “We don’t want to just check a box and do it for the novelty value,” said Smith, who noted that they had already produced virtual reality footage from Syria. “You have to find situations [like in Syria] that give you a really immersive experience.”

Election 2016 will also see some notable developments in apps from local TV stations, including some apps that aggregate news content from a wide swath of stations.

The efforts offer users an easier way to access local content and could help address the highly fragmented app news space, where users might have to download several apps to follow local developments.

One notable effort to overcome that issue was the early Nov. launch of the NewsON app, which aggregates content from local stations in 90 TV markets, including all 10 of the largest markets. Overall, it supplies content from stations that reach about 75% of the country.

Investors in the NewsON venture, which supplies both live and on-demand content, include ABC Owned Television Station Group, Cox Media Group, Hearst Television, Media General, Raycom Media and Hubbard Broadcast. In addition, the Graham Media Group is supplying feeds from all its stations to the app and Tegna’s stations in Dallas and Washington D.C. are providing streams as well.

Louis Gump, CEO of NewsON, noted that the app is currently available on Apple’s iPhone and iPad, Android phone and tablet, and on the Roku platform for Roku players and Roku TVs.

The user interface includes subject tabs that will make it easy to access political coverage from all over the country and users can choose to include social media feeds from individual stations in the live streams, Gump said. Overall, the app should make it much easier for political junkies to access election coverage from stations outside their home market.

NewsON’s focus is exclusively on video from local TV stations, and as a free ad-supported service it is designed to complement their other digital products. While it will take time for the app to build reach, Gump believes that in time they can “create a new and significant revenue stream for the stations.”

Meanwhile, the Watchup app has taken a very different approach.

Currently through Watchup, there are 10 local broadcasters, reaching about 80% of U.S. homes, that supply content—Meredith Corp., E.W. Scripps Co., Tribune Media, Cox Media Group, Bonten Media Group, Hearst Communications Inc., Schurz Communications Inc., Hubbard Broadcasting Inc., Lilly Broadcasting and Calkins Media.

The app allows users to personalize a news feed made up of clips from a variety of sources that include national, global and local news.

In contrast, NewsON focuses exclusively on local station news, with a major emphasis on live streams. While users can watch any station, users generally first see content from a local station they have selected as their favorite.

Watchup’s founder and CEO, Adriano Farano contended that their users aren’t that interested in live feeds. “We talk to users all the time and there isn’t a user demand for it,” in most cases, he said. “Younger audiences don’t understand the format of the long-form newscast anymore and don’t understand live TV either. Live TV often lacks the level of density that the on-demand generation is used to from products like Pandora, Spotify and Netflix.”

In recently months he added that they’ve been working to improve the way they can automate and personalize the delivery of on-demand news content to users. As part of that effort, they plan to add more finely defined feeds that would let users get content based on candidates and parties in the upcoming months.

While the app started on mobile and still doesn’t have a website, connected TV’s have become a more important focus. They have already launched on some gaming consoles and work is currently being done on a version of their app for Apple TV. “More than half of our traffic now comes from over-the-top,” Farano said.

As the candidates work to ramp up their campaign organizations and increase TV ad spends to boost their chances in early 2016 primaries, news organizations are also investing heavily in a host of new features that they hope will help their apps attract the attention of potential users and voters.

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