Monday, July 11, 2016

Prepare for the Video Robot Deluge

The New York Times ran a piece yesterday on the surge in online video and how news and magazine publishers are marshaling all sorts of resources—including semi- or fully-automated video generation tools—to churn out more of it.

It talks about the much-derided announcement from tronc (formerly Tribune Publishing) that it aspires to ratchet up from producing a few hundred videos to 2,000 . . . per day. And it talks about the rising prospects of two tech companies with eminently silly names—Wochit and Wibbitz—that offer automated services that scan the text of a script or news article, automatically find corresponding images and video clips from subscription archives, and generate on screen captions. They can even—if desired—produce complete videos with no human intervention.

The reason for all this is obvious, or at least it is when you look at it from the publisher's point of view. Revenue from web advertising continues to decline, and video ads pay better than regular banner ads, so publishers are racing to grab as many video ad dollars as they can.

But what about when you look at it from the reader's point of view—or perhaps at this point we should say from the "content consumer's" point of view? What do they get out of the mix?

Textual content (that is, reading old fashioned words) is great for certain types of things. Like digesting a lot of factual information quickly, or picking up on subtle tone and nuance or humor in language, or expressing ideas that are complex and cerebral. Video has its own set of virtues. Immediacy, for instance. For expressing visually a complex situation or event that would take thousands of words to describe. For showing how to perform a task with difficult steps (like, say, butchering a mullet for smoking), or letting viewers judge the expressions and body language of the people they are seeing in a certain situation.

Just bringing the two together, though, doesn't necessarily create something magical. This "video" piece from Slate, in my mind, manages to capture the worst of both worlds and, more than anything, wastes the reader/viewer's time in a rather egregious way. (And I apologize for using a tedious political story as an example, but it was the very first content I consumed after digesting the New York Times piece.)

The web piece has three paragraphs of text setting up the controversy over Hilary Clinton's private email server and how Republicans called FBI Director James Comey to testify before Congress about it on Friday.  Slate then sets the hook with a teaser directing you to the video: "As you can see in the video above, the result was not great for the GOP and their chosen talking point."

Of course, you have to watch a commercial clip first to get to the actual video (In this case, thankfully, the monetization lasts only 15 seconds.) The video proper opens with a 30 seconds of text being displayed in big captions on the screen, and it essentially repeats the exact same information you just read on the framing web page, overlaid with a lame generic drum machine beat and broken up at one point with a short clip of Donald Trump calling Clinton a liar. Finally, 35 seconds into the 1:23 video, we finally get to the relevant clips of Comey's testimony.

That's 50 seconds of preamble time to get to about 45 seconds of relevant video. Ultimately, is the reader—or, perhaps I should say, the content consumer—better off with this "video"? The 30 seconds of preamble text displayed in caption form can actually be read in about 10 seconds on the plain old text web page. The clip itself isn't Slate content but just grabbed from C-SPAN. Other than annoyance, I have no idea what the overlaid drum machine beat adds to the mix.

If Wochit and Wibbitz have their way, though, we are likely to see a whole lot of these content mashups flooding the web and social media sites in upcoming months.

I could be totally wrong. This might be the wave of the future. Maybe millions of web consumers are just dying to have their news and political commentary and (taking this back to my regular beat) their restaurant reviews doled out to them in small bites of text displayed slowly on screens over the back of stock images and video clips.

But somehow I doubt it. Where all this is going seems fairly predictable. First publishers raced after the will-o-wisp of digital dollars and filled their web sites with ever more intrusive forms of banner ads and popup ads and animated ads—and people stopped clicking on them and installed ad blockers and retreated to places where they weren't inundated with unwanted intrusions.

Video will surely go the same route. Consumers will get tired of "reading" videos and waiting through a bunch of commercials—all the stuff that gives them no value—just to get to one small nuggets of content that they find interesting, and they'll flee to a source that gives them more bang for the buck. And then we'll see New York Times pieces explaining how video ad revenue is plummeting and publishers are racing on to the next new thing.

Ultimately, for me, the focus on quality is the key. Regardless of the format and tools used, "content creators" have to be creating stuff that people want to view, hear, and/or read—material that has quality and value to the audience. The rest is all just dancing baloney.

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