Media Companies Are Pivoting to Video, In a New Way
When we want to learn about something complicated — say, how voter suppression happens online — we often turn to trusted outlets to package that information in terms we understand. This kind of content is commonly referred to as an explainer. Not quite news, not quite documentary, the category has become a common feature of digital-first news outlets like Buzzfeed, Vox, and Vice. Think 60 Minutes, in a fraction of the time. The genre originated in podcasts, as a way to break down complex topics and make them digestible to a broad audience. Explainers, audio or video, are inherently more engaging than straight text. (The Big Short, arguably the first example of explainer cinema, was based on a Michael Lewis book of the same name.)
That’s not to say that the written word isn’t compelling, but the way the brain processes information differs greatly depending on the medium. Video and audio aren’t as interpretive as text — they can be consumed with less effort. So there’s an infotainment element to explainers that’s tricky to navigate. Vlogger Hank Green gets into this issue in a video from last year, explaining why he and his brother John decided to pull back from producing this kind of content on their YouTube channel. The gist of it is that the line between opinion and news has grown blurry, and explainers that are personality instead of data-driven contribute to this trajectory. HBO’s Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, essentially high-speed investigative journalism peppered with jokes, is a good example of a program that expertly toes this line in every episode.
With the wide availability of pure entertainment video content available from individual creators across platforms, it seems that news organizations are realizing that they can focus on what they do best — reporting and research. It’s surprising, then, that a few weeks ago, CNN pulled the plug on its Great Big Story, a five-year-old streaming platform targeted at millennial viewers. Great Big Story was a streaming hub focused on documentary content, more wondrous than wonky, but the move signals a change in the way media organizations are thinking about video, and how it fits into their overall strategy.
In order to work, brands are learning that video has to have a means of distribution beyond a publisher’s own website or app. (Remember Quibi?) Vox, for example, expanded its Explained series from YouTube into a Netflix show. Great Big Story videos were beautifully shot with very high production value. But they were only available on their site and on YouTube. So perhaps the problem with Great Big Story wasn’t one of interest, but of context. Few people go to YouTube expecting to be wowed by cinematography and storytelling. But visually stunning content on a paid subscription service? Sure.
As recently noted in Variety, this isn’t the first time CNN has invested in video as a way to lure young consumers. In 2016, CNN acquired YouTuber Casey Neistat’s social-media venture, Beme, in a bid to tap into his fanbase and grow its own viewership. Two years later, CNN shuttered the app, which never achieved its goal of unseating then-competitors like Vice News. (After it was cancelled on HBO in 2016, Vice News faced its own access problem and pivoted to a cable channel, Viceland, which has since rebranded to Vice TV.) The news brands that have succeeded the most in the past decade are those that understand that content doesn’t have to be dumbed down in order for viewers, especially young ones, to feel smart.