Video has proved to be a terribly tough nut to crack online. Although it can net great advertising dollars for publishers through commercials that play before each clip, it’s incredibly expensive and time consuming to produce. As Bryan Goldberg explains:
[L]aunching video on a content website plays out like a land war in Asia. It starts out as a small operation, but then you get sucked into it. You initially believe in the purpose, but the cost becomes so overwhelming that you repeatedly ask yourself “why are we doing this, again?” You try to limit the involvement to a select few professionals, but soon everybody is knee deep in the ordeal — and most of them don’t want to be there…And when you finally see how many video streams were produced at month’s end, you stare at the numbers in disbelief and scream “THAT’S IT!? ARE YOU SHITTING ME!?”
Freddie Laker, a serial entrepreneur who has built and sold two companies, believes he has the answer with his product Guide. Laker launched Guide in August 2012 as an video news generator. In short, avatars would read articles to people.
Unfortunately, it creeped a lot of users out. “[The avatars] were extremely polarizing,” Laker admits. “[Some] people didn’t just dislike the avatars, they viscerally hated them. The descriptions I got were, ‘It makes my skin crawl,’ and ‘It will give me nightmares tonight.'” Just the kind of feedback every founder is hoping for when they test out their vision.
In September, the company pivoted and built an video news engine that turns articles into videos automatically. The new system garnered fans, and Laker says hundreds of publishers are using the technology.
Here’s how it works: A print editor or reporter enters their story text into Guide. Guide scans the text for nouns, pronouns, verbs, dates, numbers, and other keywords, and then finds images or graphics that match each section. It looks for images through Guide’s access to Creative Commons. The editor is then presented with a couple image choices for each section, he or she picks which is appropriate, and voila: a video is made.
After that step, the user chooses whether they want to have a professional VO artist voice it from Guide (which costs $20 per story). If they want to go the free route, they can have a robot voice it or record their own track.
The editor hits export and then embeds the video wherever they’d like on the site. When the viewer watches it, the images fade in and out naturally with Ken Burns effects, looking very similar to most local news reports.
It’s a scalable, inexpensive, easy way to mass produce video for content websites. A miracle. But there’s a catch: Do readers really want to watch image montages generated by a computer? Are consumers hungering for that type of video on the web?
There’s a huge debate in multimedia journalism over this very question right now. A big swath of the broadcast news population has favored taking television news segments and sticking them on the web. Companies like NowThisNews and Huffington Post Live keep traditional TV elements, like anchors, piece to cameras, and narration.
But another segment of journalists mock such approaches. They argue that video on the web is a much different experience than video on television, and the experience can’t just be transplanted over. It’s the equivalent of entrepreneurs who believe apps need to be designed for mobile natively, not just copied from the web version.
Online, people can pick and choose what they want to watch — they aren’t a captive audience. They can jump around, watching little bits here and there, stopping and starting videos on demand.
Therefore, some believe that web video lends itself to content that will keep user engagement: emotion, humor, attitude, narrative, and evergreen stories. That is to say, web video is not the place to communicate breaking news or facts, which are easier and faster to consume via text.
This camp of multimedia journalists would hate Guide. After all, the machine driven technology works best with factual, newsy articles, where it can convert them easily to a local TV news clip.
If it turns out that TV news isn’t suited for the web, then Guide’s videos might struggle to find an audience.