What exactly is going on with traditional news organizations and their slew of digital video acquisitions and partnerships?
Here are some 2013 news headlines: News Corp acquires Storyful. ABC News and Storyful announce partnership. Scripps to acquire Newsy. NBC News acquires Stringwire and invests in NowThisNews.
In case you’re not up to speed, while these companies are each different and the relationships vary, the unifying capability is the creation and social distribution of immediate, short-form, digital video news content. Some are focused on UGC, some are more professional, some are an aggregated mix, but you get the idea: short, quick news videos. While these companies are native to the digital world, they are also, generally speaking, native to social discovery and distribution.
This is how Leslie Kaufman of The New York Times began her article about the NBC investment and partnership with NowThisNews: “Broadcasting executives realize that viewers increasingly get their news by glancing on their smartphones instead of spending a half-hour in front of the television. Reacting to that shift, NBC’s news division has invested in a company that will help it produce short videos as brief as six seconds.”
One has to ask: Are these organizations seriously unable to create and distribute this kind of content on their own? Isn’t this precisely what they are built to do? I’m a believer in focus and expertise, but I find it strange that in the world of news, where content shelf life can be a day if not just hours, these companies could not have been iterating and learning on their own and been years ahead of the very start-ups they acquired.
I think these acquisitions signal an inability to react to the changing times at a senior management level. M&A won’t solve that problem, and neither will copycat versions of look-alike deals. These broadcast networks won’t survive if they simply paste on, partner or invest in short-form videos. They are going to need to drink the digital Kool Aid and make these skillsets an integral part of everything they do and all of the personnel that do it.
And it’s not just the news organizations that need to step up. While the cable brethren have done a better job across the board, especially at NBC Cable properties such as Bravo, USA, and SyFy, the network scripted and alternative development groups are getting their digital lunch eaten by Machinima, Fullscreen, and Collective Digital Studios, among others. While broadcast networks continue to worry about cannibalizing their TV audience, these native digital content providers are building new, sustainable audiences. The CBS and Turner/Time Warner partnership for NCAA digital content has yielded a terrific experience -- but my guess is that CBS has not acquired lasting digital understanding the way the Turner digital team has. The only network area that seems to be developing this skillset from within is NBC Sports in its Olympics work.
What does this all mean? Well, as the definition of the term “TV” shifts its meaning to software from hardware, and as screen convergence becomes a reality used by consumers, the native digital programmers who understand the intersection of content and social will be far ahead of TV broadcast networks -- whose brands are already losing meaning in the consumer mindset. That will leave the content battle to the better-prepared and better-branded: TV cable networks and digital content networks (including Netflix).