I’ve written a few times recently about the ways new content models are emerging online and influencing film, television, and studio marketing. We’re used to seeing television and film content ending up online, but increasingly the reverse is happening. As new online programing options grow, the crossover of such content to cable and broadcast television expands and further blurs the lines between different distribution mediums. A time is coming, sooner than anyone realizes, when the distinctions between where and when we view such content will cease to be relevant and then vanish altogether. It’s already happened with music, in some ways that sort of predict the transition toward the merger of the Internet and our traditional home entertainment viewing experiences through television.
Consider that there are 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every hour, with more than one billion unique users visiting YouTube each month. Over 6 billion hours of video watched on YouTube every month, and YouTube reaches more 18-34 year olds than any cable network. Those are numbers that tell us everything we need to know about how inevitable is the merger of traditional forms of home entertainment with online distribution.
It’s interesting, then, to take a look at some of the first and most popular examples of television embracing online content and in fact moving to blur those lines. And perhaps the best example of the gray area where television and Internet intersect is Right This Minute, a syndicated TV program with the simple premise of locating online videos that are about to go viral and bringing them to television audiences, complete with the story behind the videos.
It’s a complete reversal of the typical model in which popular TV content gets uploaded online and shared, and the story behind it is fascinating and provides a sort of glimpse into the future. I spoke with Phil Alvidrez, general manager of MagicDust Television and producer of Right This Minute, about the program and the merger between old media and new media in the world of broadcast television.
PHIL: Well, my background… is in local news. I spent 30 years in local news — all of it here in Phoenix, the last 18 running a newsroom — and then left at the end of 2003, and I really kind of unplugged. I found out after 30 years of watching multiple newscasts every night at 5, 6, and 10 o’clock that there were other things in the world, and I didn’t have to be chained to the television watching multiple shows all of the time. Apparently, a lot of other people started doing that, too, because local news ratings tended to drop. Then we went through the whole economic thing, and a lot of newsrooms got smaller.
The idea for Right This Minute came out of a discussion one day where someone said, “If you were doing local news, what would you do?” And we [thought] it’s a very interesting thing that’s happened in local news, that people still rely on it but there’s been this economic upheaval and a lot of newsrooms are smaller, but a lot of television stations are doing even more news than they were ten years ago and so there’s a lot of repetition in local news. So, isn’t it odd that you’d see shrinking audiences maybe in part due to more repetition, at a time when the amount of news and information and video we have at our disposal… is greater than its ever been in the history of man? You have a shrinking amount of local news content, then you have this exploding information out there in the world. Shouldn’t there be a way to marry the two? So that’s kind of how the idea came about, and the result was Right This Minute. There had been no bridge between broadcast where a lot of people still are, and the Web world where a lot of video is being posted every day.
…And it’s growing every year. There’s a certain social currency to Web videos. If someone emails you a link to a video and you’ve seen it, you kind of go “ah, I saw that two weeks ago…” but if you send a link to somebody and they’ve never seen it before… that’s kind of a currency, and you’re kind of hip and ahead of the curve. Most of that happens by happenstance, other than the videos that do go viral. What we do is, we go out there and look for you. It’s the same thing journalists have been doing forever, you go look for stories while everybody else goes to work every day. They come home and they have time to pick up a Forbes Magazine or go online and read Forbes, they can pick up a story and read it and you can tell them what went on…
Whose done that for viral videos? Well, until Right This Minute came along, very few people, and certainly nobody on broadcast. The magic in it is very simple, you pull away the screen and we’ve got a group of people who are dedicated to going out and searching for videos so you don’t have to. Because they’re out there every day, they develop a sense of what is likely to be sharable, what is going to tap into a wide broad general market interest. Those are the videos we try to find. Then we go a step further, as journalists have always done… we go out and we say, “this is very popular, wouldn’t you like to meet the people behind it?” or “how did that happen, how did they happen to capture the video?”
We had the video, you probably saw it, of this baby that was moved to tears when her mom sang to her… We found it when it had a few thousand views [it now has more than 28 million views], and one of our producers said, “This is gonna be big, who are these people?” We got an interview with the mom for our show — a delightful couple — and she told us how it was this one particular song that her baby tended to have this reaction to. They thought it was so unusual that her husband filmed it. Our interview ended up on NBC News, on the Today Show, on People Magazine’s site, and it was a great example of something we found because we were out there looking for it and we provided something that most people would never see — the interview with the mom, which turned out to be the story behind the video, and we had it first. So that’s what we built the premise of the show upon.
Can you talk about what makes your format so perfect for providing Web content to a TV audience? Your show is on regular television, but it’s produced in a way that allows it to go straight to the Web in segments and such. Which makes your show formatted for both mediums, yes?
PHIL: What you see on television is a real reflection of how this show gets built. We have this group of people who go out and search for videos each day. When they find them, we put them in a big basket that we go through with our editors and pick out the plums among the plums. Then when Beth Troutman and the other hosts come in, they get assigned a handful of videos to look at, so they go back with the e-journalists who found the videos and do research on the story, and make a decision about whether we’re going to get an interview on the story. And when they get together on the set, each one of them has a handful of videos they’re responsible for and they share them with the other hosts one at a time. So, each story that we present is a one-off of that particular video, and in the course of a day we assemble 25 to 30 of these stories, and they’re all individual stories. And that’s what gets assembled into a television show.
When you’re making it as a half-hour television show, you try to produce it the same way you would any program, with the idea that people are going to watch it from beginning to end. So you’re going to have some dramatic moments and some funny moments, and some touching moments and some animals in it. And you’re going to have some variety, so that if you’re watching a television show from beginning to end and you’re not interested in the video your watching right now, just wait a minute because there’s going to be another one right after it that will be totally different. So that works really well for a TV audience.
But on the Web, we like to pick and choose, we like to look at thumbnails and we like to say, “Hmm, I want to click on that one and see what that story’s about, and then I want to skip over here to look at this other story.” The format of the show lends itself to appearing on television because we can order those stories in a way that’s interesting to a viewer who’s going to watch it from start to finish, but on our Web site those [videos] can exist as individual items and people can pick and choose among them. It’s a great hybrid for working on the Web and working on television.
And what we find is there’s an increase in second-screen viewing that is happening not just with our show but with a lot of TV shows. … I sit down to watch TV at night and I grab my iPad, and if we’re watching Black List and my wife (Mary) says, “Who’s that, weren’t they in another show?” then I can sit there on my iPad and I interact and look things up. Our research shows that when people watch Right This Minute, if they see a video they like, they may want to go find other videos on the Web or watch it again on a mobile app or on the Web site. So there’s a lot of interactive activity with Right This Minute… and we [might] use a video and say, “If you want to see the whole video, there’s more to it, go to our Web site or go to our mobile app and you can watch it there.” So we like to think that’s another thing that makes Right This Minute’s model unique. …
We provide this platform where, if you post a video on YouTube and you hope people are going to come find your video, if we feature it on our show then you get publicity from being on our show but if they come to our Web site they may click back and come to your YouTube video and generate some additional views as well… We try to be real friendly to the people who contribute content and create content.
PHIL: This is our third season, but it’s the first season that’s been expanded to the kind of reach that we have this year where we’re on in 85% of the country, and on in 65% of the country Monday through Friday. It’s the first time we’ve been large enough to have a national rating, which is what you’re looking at.
Anecdotally, we’ve seen overnight markets where our partner group investors have had stations… where we’ve known for a while now that we’re the number one syndicated show — new, old, pick it — among younger viewers. Day-in and day-out, we’re the number one rated show among viewers 25 to 54, between 9 in the morning and 5 or 6 in the evening [in those markets]. We’ve seen that kind of anecdotal success in individual markets. … And yet, we also know when you speak to the economics of it, in terms not only of what it costs to produce a show but also the amount of promotion that’s available, when you’re competing against shows like Queen Latifah and Bethenny and some of the other new shows that are out there, there’s no way we could compete promotionally with the kind of platform and promotional budgets we’ve seen go into those shows… So what’s gratifying is to see that the show is finding an audience much the way videos go viral, which is by word of mouth and sharing.
So, it’s real exciting to be at the top of the new shows that are out there, and hopefully that’s something that will build, because we’ve also seen a steady growth year to year, month to month, rating period to rating period, as the show has grown in popularity. It tends to do better the longer it’s on the air. And because we had broadcast partners who are true broadcasters who understand the business, we had the luxury of having patient investors who were willing to roll the show out, let us work on the show and polish the show and let it get its sea legs, and before it was rolled out nationally we worked a lot of the bugs out. We’re very lucky in that regard, [because] a lot of other new shows get judged very quickly and very harshly in how they do in those first few weeks.
PHIL: You know, I’ve watched every episode of American Idol… [so] one, it’s great; two, if we could have any measure of the success he’s had — because everything he’s done has turned to gold recently — I hope some of that rubs off on us.
Your viewership is 2 million per day. That’s just televised, not online viewing?
PHIL: We know that last month people watched between 700-800,000 videos on our Web site. And our monthly unique visitors is up over 600,000 now. I know when people download our mobile ap, they do it to watch videos, so the engagement on our mobile aps is very high. People watch between 12 and 20 minutes per session when they click on our mobile ap, because they’re there to watch videos and they’re kind of addictive. So the numbers you mentioned are for the television show, not the Web site.
You’ve worked both sides of this. How is the Internet changing viewing habits, is it moving viewers from one medium to another, or just adding new avenues for viewing content? People aren’t just replacing TV viewing with Web viewing, they’re doing both, right?
PHIL: One of the first reactions I’ve had is, in terms of content and people’s interest in content, you don’t have to be a TV producer anymore to have people interested in what you have to share. People are accepting of video on an iPhone as long as the content is interesting, they don’t really care that it was shot by you or me or a mom at the mall if what they captured is interesting. … So that’s one huge change, it’s an expansion that didn’t exist 20 years ago. If you were a photographer who shot some amazing piece of video, if you didn’t get it to a news outlet and interest them in carrying it, it wasn’t going to get seen. Now, you can just post it and a news outlet may find you and want to include what you shot on their show. The other thing that’s a real change is, I don’t think people care anymore what the delivery method is. I’m as comfortable watching something on my iPad or computer as I am watching it on TV. … There’s more and more people getting comfortable with that, which goes back to your point that there’s going to be this convergence of Internet, television, broadcast, it’s all coming together. And what really is the distinguishing point is, am I interested in what you have to show me?
There was a lot of resistance by studios to embrace online content distribution and creation. But that’s started changing rapidly now. Working in broadcast TV, how long do you think it will be before there’s no real difference? Because at some point it makes no sense to go buy a cable package when you can have everything on a TV that provides you with content the way it’s done at iTunes for example.
PHIL: I think there’s two things that will continue to drive it, and you’ll have to watch to see what happens with them. Broadcasters will tell you there is still going to be an appetite for local news, so depending on where that local news is and your ability to receive that signal, I think that’s a distinguishing thing that’s different from community to community. And the other thing is, live sports. I deal with a lot of students because we run an internship at Right This Minute, and I talk to a lot of students at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism here in Phoenix. And for a lot of students, if they can’t see it on their laptop then it doesn’t exist. Their laptop is their television. But they have to go somewhere to watch sporting events. … When the NFL does a contract to put Monday Night Football on the Web, that will be a sign that a big barrier has come down.
Thanks to Phil Alvidrez for taking time to talk about his show and what it means for the future of online and broadcast TV content! What do you think about the merger of television and online content, dear readers? Do you welcome it, dread it, or think it’ll never happen? Sound off in the comments below!