Acquisition Global Viewpoint – July 2016

How Television News Can Thrive in the Era of Live Video Streaming

Live streaming video has arrived, threatening traditional television news operations. But with live streaming comes a new opportunity to reinvent news and make it better.

When I was very young news cameraman, I was assigned to cover a NASCAR race at the Darlington Raceway. Just before the race began, my boss offered some advice. When having to choose between getting a shot of the winner of the race or a major wreck, he advised, always shoot the wreck. That, he said, is what the people really want to see and why they are here.

That advice would always stick with me when I worked in TV news. Even when I was in the White House camera pool in London to get images of President Reagan entering Windsor Castle, I was told: “For 15 seconds, your camera will be the only one focused on the president. If he is shot then and you miss it, you’ll never work in the news business again.” How’s that to induce fear? Believe me, it is done all the time.

That was old style “if it bleeds, it leads” TV news. That philosophy continues today, but in an updated way. Now we are in an era where everyone has a video camera in their smartphone and anyone can now shoot live video — using a range of applications like Facebook, Periscope, Meerkat, Livestream, UStream, Stringwire or Hang w/.

Frame from live video captured by cell phone of truck during July terrorist attack in Nice, France

Frame from live video captured by cell phone of truck during July terrorist attack in Nice, France

In fact, live video of some tragic event happens almost every day. Whether it’s a cop shooting someone at a routine traffic stop or a terrorist attack, somebody, somewhere will get it on video. Even the House of Representatives got into the act recently when Democratic members staged a sit-in after TV cameras were shut off by Republicans. The video was streamed live from a House member’s smartphone, which was broadcast on C-SPAN.

Sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives

Sit-in on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives

So, when everyone has a video camera and essentially can go on the air live at any moment, should professional journalists just fold up shop and go home? Is the game over? My answer to that is a big NO. In fact, I see it as a huge opportunity for innovative professionals to reinvent the news business.

There’s an old cliche that applies here. Just as owning a word processor does not make a writer or owning a camera make a photographer, having a smartphone does not make the user a good and trusted visual storyteller. That skill has to be learned and the trust has to be earned. Both take time.

In fact, we are already seeing that human bias often overrules what the camera sees. Just look at the fake deaths and fabricated stories on Facebook every day. Do you think it will be any different with live video? Even the problem extends to what’s called “news” on cable television. Networks have made a lot of money taking political sides, with all their bias played openly. The result has been a polarization like we have never seen before in this country.

In recent years, conventional TV news has gotten a bad rap for veering off track toward softer “lifestyle” informational pieces — rather than solid hard news and enterprise reporting. Anchors have begun to look the same, almost generic. News in many markets appears the same as any other market — only the name of the city is changed. As a result, millennials have quit watching. Many no longer consider 6 p.m. or 11 p.m. newscasts relevant at all. There is an opportunity to reverse this trend.

With younger viewers continuously migrating online to watch video, it is logical to believe this trend will hurt the current version of television news. At least the online video is quick and often action-packed, even if its not true. Online video is often “if it bleeds, it leads” taken to the extreme.

Out of the coming glut of online live streamed video, I predict there will be a huge need for someone to trust — a person to put the avalanche of information in perspective. We already know that those on the right and left of the political spectrum will supply their interpretations and that the fakers will run amok, but what about the trusted storytellers?

Providing that trusted storyteller is where, I believe, the opportunity lies. Whether it comes from talented individuals with the integrity and skills to craft a good, compelling story, or a new kind of news organization that is as unbiased as possible (sorry, no one is completely unbiased), the need for honest brokers has arrived. These people will go beyond conventional news anchors to dig into a story with detail and insight. It is inevitable that they will rise in the current chaotic state of live online streaming.

There will also be a need for videographers and other technicians with professional skills. Shaky cellphone video gets old fast (just look at videos shot at music concerts). Steady, relevant shots are necessary, as is good audio and artful editing. A new generation needs to develop these skills on smartphones in addition to having the talent to tell a story well. Though some TV stations have personnel with these kinds of skills, sadly many don’t.

There is really nothing new about what I am saying. It has been the same since the beginning of the television medium and TV news itself. The latest, greatest technology has always captured the imagination of possibilities. But the reality is different. Without the skills to use it effectively, new technology means nothing.

Perhaps the right way to look at the advent of live streaming video is in terms of new opportunity. The opportunity to do it right and use the technology in a way to capture and inspire audiences. We know most people will do it wrong. That’s a given.

But sharp minds will figure out how to use it well and create a new generation of news coverage for the millennial generation. It’s all part of the evolution of storytelling.

Let us know what you think…

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