Changing the Channel

Online media and the future of the television industry

by by Erica Schwiegershausen

illustration by by Alexander Dale

Two weeks ago, the Super Bowl was broadcast live online for the first time ever. With about 2.1 million viewers watching the live stream, NBC said the game was the “most-watched single-game sports event ever online.” While the number of online viewers pales in comparison to the 111.3 million people who watched the game on television, the live-stream reflects a trend that traditional television networks and ad-buying agencies are becoming increasingly aware of—people aren’t just watching TV on televisions anymore.

Or, at least, young people aren’t. A report released by Nielsen last week confirms what media analysts have been predicting for years: while Americans still watch an average of four hours and 39 minutes of TV a day, traditional television viewing is declining among young people. According to Nielsen data analyzed by the New York Times, television viewership among Americans under 35 has decreased for three straight quarters, even when DVR viewership is taken into account. Adults between 25 and 34 watched four fewer hours of TV in the third quarter of 2011 than they did during the third quarter of 2010, which is the equivalent of nine minutes fewer a day. Younger demographics saw similar decreases. Such data increasingly points to the inevitable peak of TV viewing and resulting plateau or likely decline—a change with serious implications for the future of the media and advertising industries.


While traditional television networks struggle to maintain their hold on younger audiences, online news organizations and internet titans are becoming increasingly innovative with online video. Last fall, YouTube announced the launch of 100 online channels featuring playlists of original content from a variety of partners ranging from celebrities like Madonna, Shaquille O’Neal, and Rainn Wilson to news organizations such as the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and The Onion.  Google, which purchased YouTube in 2006 for $1.65 billion, has invested $100 million in advances to the channel’s producers for the advertising revenue that the videos are expected to bring in.

In a blog post, Robert Kyncl, the global head of content partnerships at YouTube, likened the channels’ launch to the historical expansion of television from three networks—each with a mass viewership—to hundreds of cable channels that served niche audiences. “People went from broad to narrow, and we think they will continue to go that way—spend more and more time in the niches—because now the distribution landscape allows for more narrowness,” Kyncl said.

Julie Levin Russo, a professor in the department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University, described this development as part of a larger trend of the “professionalization of YouTube,” explaining that, over the past few years, an increasing number of the most popular videos on the website are professionally created content as opposed to material generated by amateurs.  “It started out as a sort of user-generated-anybody-can-post kind of portal but YouTube has been increasingly moving towards partnerships with professional, corporate content producers,” Levin Russo explained.

One of these YouTube channels is the Slate News Channel, which, produced by the online magazine Slate, launched on January 1. Over the past few years both traditional and exclusively online news media have been relying increasingly on video: the New York Times has a fairly robust video team that produces both short and long-form content for the site, the Associated Press frequently produces short footage clips, and the Wall Street Journal’s site features live streaming videos on the weekdays with news anchors.

However, the Slate News Channel is somewhat unique, said Ben Johnson, a Supervising Editor at Slate V, the online magazine’s video division. The intent is to aggregate the news, breaking down the biggest stories of the day into a minute or less of online video. The channel produces five of these short videos each day, and has gotten close to a quarter of a million views and 2,200 subscribers since its launch.

Johnson admits that at first he was skeptical about the project. “I’m not a cable baby,” he said. “I’m not a person who watches CNN videos online very often.” However, Johnson says he has been “pleasantly shocked” to discover that there is a strong demographic that is interested in getting news from these short videos. “As someone who was pretty suspicious of this format six months ago. I am now a complete convert,” he said.


Slate is not the only online-based news organization that seems to be embracing increased demand for online news video. On February 3, Arianna Huffington announced that the Huffington Post will launch the HuffPost Streaming Network this summer, featuring 12 hours of daily programming, eventually increasing to 24 hours.

As an exclusively online publication, the Huffington Post has always relied on online advertising for its revenue—and has had unprecedented success. This month marks a year since the website was bought by AOL for $315 million, and since the acquisition the site has garnered 36.2 million unique visitors a month—a 47 percent growth.

Roy Sekoff, a founding editor of HuffPo who will head the network explained that the stream won’t have timed scheduled programs, but rather will overlap topics to reflect the “controlled chaos” of the Web. Sekoff described the network as “more relaxed, more free-flowing, and much more spontaneous and interactive” than traditional TV.

According to the Huffington Post’s Andy Plesser, a substantial part of the network will be “integrating live, one-on-one and group dialogues and debates from the community.” Viewers will be able to join into the conversations via webcams, smart phones, and tablets using applications such as Skype and Google+ Hangouts, as well as interact with the video screen itself, clicking on links to related content and social sharing tools. According to Plesser, “people aren’t interested in being talked at anymore—they want to be part of the conversation.”

Levin Russo says that she’s curious to see whether HuffPo’s plan will be successful. “What HuffPo is very good at doing is aggregation; they’re notorious for not producing their own content but being able to aggregate and represent a lot of disparate material and re-frame it within their particular branding so that they become a portal for this particular segment of news consumers.” What remains to be seen, she says, is whether HuffPo will be able to aggregate independent news-based video in way that’s coherent and compelling to viewers.

“I think their plan is impressively ambitious,” said Johnson, “but as anyone who has watched CNN for a long period of time in a day can tell you, when you’re trying to provide content 24 hours a day, a lot of that content is going to be crap.” Sekoff described the network to the Wall Street Journal as a “neverending talk show” that will “mirror the Internet experience.” Sekoff declined to say how much AOL is spending on the launch, but called it a “substantial investment;” the company is dedicating 100 employees to the project.

The Wall Street Journal has been quick to point out that other digital media outlets have turned to live video to expand on text reporting, calling “hyperbolic” HuffPo's description of the network as “truly groundbreaking” and a “game-changer.” “Most notably, the Wall Street Journal launched its first live online program in 2008 and is currently producing about four hours of live video on weekdays for,” the Journal reports.

Sekoff described the Journal project as “fine,” but said that the Huffington Post’s interactive live stream would differ substantially, due in large part to the site’s heavily commenting audience. “No offense to the Wall Street Journal, but I think we got more comments this month than the Wall Street Journal got last year,” said Sekoff. The Journal declined to comment.


“There’s no question in my mind that as long as the Internet exists, television is doomed,” said Johnson. Indeed, it seems hard to remember the Internet before YouTube. Jawed Karim, one of the platform’s founders, cites Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show as inspiration for the site’s creation, since, although the incident was followed by an FCC fine, a Supreme Court lawsuit, and an explosive amount of commentary, the footage was not available after the live broadcast.

But old-fashioned television isn’t dead yet. According to the Economist, the world spent $115 billion on 220 million flat-panel televisions last year. In fact, Levin Russo points out that “people have been proclaiming the death of television at several successive phases over the last few decades.” The advent of the remote control in the late 1970s prompted concerns that increased viewer agency would interfere with the networks’ imperative to show ads. In 1984 the Supreme Court ruled that recording individual copies of complete television shows on VCRs for purposes of time-shifting did not constitute copyright infringement, increasing viewers’ ability to consume television on demand.

“The problem for the industry of how to negotiate the viewer’s agency over TV programming is an ongoing issue, and I don’t think that online viewing is suddenly this revolution that’s going to end television as we know it,” said Russo. Rather, she points out that the television industry has actually been rather savvy and forward-thinking in adapting to the realm of online distribution.

By 2016, half of all households will have Wi-Fi enabled devices on their televisions, according to Forrester Research, meaning that traditional TV networks and cable channels are likely to expand to buy web-based channels as well. “I think the old media industry is really trying to figure out how to shift television from a particular device where the content is to basically being a free floating set of content that you can consume on a variety of devices including the Internet,” Levin Russo said.

Johnson is idealistic about the expansion of online video. He points to examples like the video footage of Muammar Gaddafi once he was finally captured and killed, asserting that “whether or not you necessarily want to watch that, it is extremely powerful video that probably never would have been captured ten years ago, and even if it was captured probably never would have made it onto the Internet,” where it prompted widespread questioning about the circumstances of Gaddafi’s death.

While Johnson points to the potential for increased online video to contribute to the “democratization of the world,” James Der Derian, a Watson Institute research professor of international studies and political science warns that an increasingly video-dominated web experience requires viewers to be especially discerning: “Back in the early days of mass media, Walter Benjamin wrote during the interwar period about the rise of Nazism and how they were able to use it—in particular radio and film—to magnify their political power. He said, "history now degenerates into images, not into stories or words." This puts an incredible pressure on viewers—not just the listeners—to learn to read images like they read texts: critically and skeptically.”

ERICA SCHWIEGERSHAUSEN B’13 is spontaneous and interactive.