Is there a hard and fast rule for deciding what makes live online video successful? According to Sue Brooks, director of international products and platforms for The Associated Press, it’s identifying content so suited to digital consumption habits that it wouldn’t work on any other medium:
“What we’ve learned very early on with AP Video Hub is that online video is not TV. Very early on when some newspapers were experimenting with online video they were just trying to replicate the TV experience online and it just didn’t work. The people who are now being successful are using video as just another weapon in the storytelling armoury.”
That realisation is what led to AP’s expansion of its live streaming Video Hub service, which now allows its subscribers access to three live streams at once, where before they were limited to one. The decision to do so was based in part on what AP’s users were asking for and partly on analysis of what its pure-play digital subscribers were choosing to consume:
“We started hearing from customers that live was a big driver for them at the moment, literally real-time news. We thought ‘we needed to do something about that’ so that’s why we’ve started doing these simultaneous lives, so now customers can choose which content they want to put out live.
“What also surprised us last year when we started experimenting with live for digital customers was the demand for what we’re now calling ‘slow television’, things like the white smoke chimney cam when the last pope was being elected – people would watch for hours on end just waiting for the smoke. I think it’s because people want to be the first to know and actually the reason is more ‘first’ than live.”
The transition to offering more content tailored specifically for digital – Brooks singles out tech and entertainment coverage as some of the softer news for which the AP is increasingly seeing demand – has come with its own challenges. In the fourth quarter of 2013 the platform offered 39 live events. That grew to 125 live events a year later.
That’s led to enforced changes from both AP’s supplier side and the consumer side when it comes to preparing the video for broadcast:
“We have to be more polished for a digital audience. When we’re transmitting live content to a broadcaster it will always go via the master control room and they will never cut live to an event that isn’t yet ready to go, but that is not the case with online sites.
“If you’re digital, a website on a newspaper, and we’ve told them ‘this event is going to start at 10 o clock’ they don’t want their customers to be looking at an empty podium for twenty minutes. All of those things we have been trialling and trying to work out as we go along. We’ll keep learning.”
Brooks says the expansion has not disrupted the AP’s traditional customers for live video – broadcasters – many of whom also need additional content for their own online properties, but there are commercial and practical considerations in shifting the way video is delivered.
She says AP’s in a constant process of gradual evolution:
“We don’t tend to do any more big bang launches because you just don’t know what you don’t know these days. It moves too quickly to be able to say ‘this is it’. We like to learn from customers and our data and then act on customer feedback.
“It’s been very obvious for some time that the live expansion would need to happen, so we’re talking to customers all the time and responding very agiley to their needs. We started planning for it in the middle of last year. By Q4 we were pretty sure of what we wanted to do, and since then we’ve been seriously getting the kit into place.”
By its nature AP’s content – whether that’s the traditional video coverage that worked well on television or the slow burn coverage of tech conferences or the papal chimney – is different from much online video. As a result, the video consumption habits of AP’s subscribers are unlikely to match the sub-ten minute average time spent viewing we’re seeing on YouTube, Netflix and other entertainment sites.
Like many other video news providers, AP is facing competition from user-generated content and audiences who increasingly have mobile video production capabilities of their own.
Nevertheless, Brooks is confident AP will continue to grow its digital video offering over the next few years, saying that while it currently offers only three streams it could be double that by this time next year. She believes the expertise of AP – borne of having a reach that means it touches over half the worlds’ populations each day – gives it an advantage:
“Eventually, if I were a betting woman I would say we could almost have an infinite number [of streams] because customers will always want organisations like the AP to edit for them, otherwise its just unmanageable noise.
“Obviously we’re making investments in additional news gathering to get the additional content covered. We’re also looking at workflows within our newsrooms, and that’s all happening simultaneously. Towards the end of this year we’ll be ramping up some more again. We do everything in baby steps.”
The challenge for AP is to ramp up its additional content provision without losing its reputation for high-quality video. Though its large subscriber base protects it against disruption in the short-term, in a world where the barriers to producing video are becoming lower and lower, demonstrating AP’s value will become increasingly challenging.