Posted by: structureofnews | November 17, 2010

The Video Must Go On

We all watch a lot of video these days, thanks to sites like YouTube and the wonders of the iPad (I stayed up to watch an episode of Sherlock on the couch with the iPad propped up on my stomach, and I’m beginning to think that video is the killer app for this device).   Perhaps even more video than when we were couch potatoes soaking in hours of TV – but even if not, we certainly have a much greater choice of video to watch these days.  And every other survey reminds us how much video is becoming a key part of the web experience.

But ironically, video comes with a host of inherent limitations that undermine key parts of the web experience.   I’m reminded of this reading a post at Six Pixels of Separation – not so much the post itself, which does raise some interesting points about making video more interactive, but in the comments on it (highlighting a key part of the web experience: commentary and interaction.)

If you take a look at any YouTube video, you’ll note that you can rate it, comment on it, share it (by email, on your favorite online social network, etc…), embed it (on any other website) and you can see information about it (views, likes, etc…) which does make a person consider if they’ll spend time with it. While these functionalities have evolved over the years, the actual content (the video itself) is still a very traditional broadcast. The odds of someone figuring out how to make the actual video more “social media-like” is challenging. I’ve seen videos that allow people to drop comments in it or links within the video to others videos where people are responding to the comments, but those have not received a ton of traction from the mass audience.

I bolded (is that a verb?) what seems to be a key line.   You can interact around it, but there’s not a lot you can do with the actual video itself.   True, there are videos that do allow you to look at how a particular pair of shoes or set of clothes would look on a model – which does provide some level of interactivity, and presumably helps sell shoes and clothes – but those are still a minority on the web.

It seems to me that key issues with video news include:

  1. It’s not really searchable.  It could be, if we more accurately microtagged elements in a video, as Major League Baseball is doing.   But by and large it’s hit and miss.
  2. It’s not scannable.  You can’t really fast-forward through a video to see what parts are worthwhile, the same way you run quickly over text – or even get a quick sense of an interactive database. That raises the investment you have to put into viewing any piece – and lowers the boredom threshold where you abandon the video.
  3. It’s fundamentally passive and narrative in nature, meaning, it has a beginning, middle and end, and is intended to be consumed that way.  That’s not to say that’s a bad thing; the best stories in the world are built that way too.  But it doesn’t lend itself to being broken apart and building longer-term value the same way text or data does, ala structured journalism.

And a key other one:  Video is relatively expensive to make.  At least, good video is. 

At the same time, video is, as many commentators pointed out, a much more personal experience.  It’s being consumed at massive rates online, and like it or not, will be a key medium for news at some point.  Assuming we can figure out how to do it well – and cost-effectively.   And by “well” I mean integrating with the web, as opposed to just just simply pushing out traditional (or quasi-traditional) news down the pipes.

Some news organizations – such as The Wall Street Journal – are doing daily “shows” that feature journalists discussing the day’s events.   Others have dedicated video teams that run around making short features in conjunction with reporters from the print publication.  Still others hand out Flip cameras and hope for the best.

Quality varies wildly, except at the very top end of the business – and there it’s not clear that there’s any decent return on all that investment.  And none of it is really interactive.

The comments on Six Pixels offer some suggestions:

Why not integrate gaming into the story and allow the viewer to use voice commands as well. What if we allow the user though gaming to influence the plot line? What if we allow them to embed audio comments? We are hung up on getting input though a device that requires fingers. Watching is passive, interaction should behave in a similar way.

That’s an interesting one – build gaming into the experience, ala an immersive database, but use video as the interface.  That’s more likely to be animation that video, which can be expensive to shoot multiple storylines on, but if done well, would likely have a longer shelf-life than today’s broadcast.

I have since seen experimental film/videoart constructed as a fragmented narrative, with multiple perspectives, storylines – where the audience is given control of how it unfolds. To me, this is one possible next step for use of video in creating brand experiences… storytelling offering sustained engagement, likely resulting in social currency.

Not that I have any answers.  I was talking to the head of a global TV news organization not too long ago, and walking through some of the imperatives of the operation – 24-hour broadcasts, the need to get on location, booking guests, etc – and all for content that was perishable within a day.  It seemed like there must be some way to get more value out of all that effort.  But I couldn’t find it.


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