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From AJR,   October/November 2007  issue

Mining the Web   

Broadcasters are turning user-generated online content into winning television.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

It took some time for broadcasters to learn how to produce good news Web sites. They had to stop thinking in terms of afternoon deadlines, talking-head video and bundles of stories called "shows." Now, they're learning how to turn Internet video into good TV.

This summer, ABC floated six episodes of "i-Caught," a half-hour primetime show built around strange and amazing Internet video, much of it caught or produced by users. Hosted by "Good Morning America" weekend coanchor Bill Weir,

"i-Caught" investigated the back stories of some of the Web's most viral clips. In one episode the show covered eight stories, including: A New York video vigilante who catches civil servants in the act of violating parking laws; a site that pays teens to upload video of themselves performing bone-breaking stunts; and the superstardom achieved by a Gap employee from Paducah, Kentucky, with a YouTube show called "Ask A Gay Man." New York Times writer Mike Hale describes "i-Caught" as a combination of "20/20" and "America's Funniest Home Videos," which pretty much nails it.

"I-Caught" wasn't the first of its ilk. In May, CNN Headline News launched "News To Me," which follows a similar format at a breakneck pace, covering 15 to 20 different clips in half an hour. In November 2006, the BBC debuted "Your News," a combination of user-contributed content and professionally reported stories based on ideas and tips from viewers.

If it's possible for amateur video of a lion vs. buffalo vs. crocodile "safari smackdown" to signal a seminal moment in TV-Web convergence, this might be such a moment. By putting user-generated video on TV, broadcasters acknowledge the universe of entertaining and important content that flourishes on the Web without any help from mass media. The "safari smackdown" clip had accumulated more than 7 million views on YouTube before ABC displayed it on national TV. The networks are also trying to build brand recognition to make their own sites top-of-mind when viewers have outrageous or exclusive video to share.

And yet, there's something slightly awkward about these shows. ABC's "i-Caught" and CNN's "News To Me" each offer a grab bag of stories that have little in common with each other except nonprofessional video. It's interesting to learn the histories of popular Web clips, but the experience is inherently linear and not at all interactive. I can't click away to more episodes of "Ask A Gay Man" and skip the stupid teenagers setting themselves on fire. (Maybe someday my TV will do that, but not today.) One gets all the randomness of surfing the Web with none of the control.

The newsmagazine format might be more comfortable for viewers who prefer a passive and guided experience, but it's questionable that someone of the Internet generation would stay interested for long. Instead of watching a TV show about the Internet, why not just go there? Better yet, why not do both? If these programs want to keep younger viewers (meaning anyone under 35), they need to offer companion Web sites that are up-to-date and provide the interactivity that TV can't.

ABC's fledgling "i-Caught" site does that, with an archive of stories that aired on TV plus extra clips and exclusive Webcasts. Viewers can rate or comment on each clip. It feels like a project that could continue even if the show doesn't. In contrast, CNN's "News To Me" page is a token effort. It offers a handful of video clips and a form for uploading video, but the episodes aren't even available online.

But for CNN, "News To Me" is merely a side dish to a much deeper and more powerful integration of user-generated content with television. Launched in August 2006, CNN's

I-Report project not only supplies content for "News To Me," but has noticeably enriched CNN's breaking news coverage and made CNN.com a magnet for citizen news photos and video. In April of this year, CNN had exclusive video from the scene of the Virginia Tech shooting, captured by a graduate student with a camera-equipped mobile phone. In August,

I-Report received more than 450 photos and video clips within 24 hours of the I-35 bridge collapse in Minneapolis. CNN.com regularly solicits user contributions on its home page when a news event happens in a public place. (Whether ventures such as I-Report encourage citizens to take unwise risks is another conversation.)

By aggressively looking for ways to enhance news coverage with user-supplied content, CNN levels the barrier between amateur and professional material that still impedes many news organizations. The notion that citizen journalism and "real" reporting belong in different categories tends to result in the sequestration of Internet content in separate shows, segments or sections. Real news goes over here, user content goes over there.

There's nothing wrong with TV shows based on viral video's greatest hits, especially as broadcasters and audiences adjust to the role of social media and user-generated content in our picture of the world. But programs such as "i-Caught" and "News To Me" should be a first step, preparation for something more integrated and meaningful.