At a meet-up of members of the Online News Association in London on Thursday, BBC News website technology editor Darren Waters offered an insight into its recent project to test on-demand video.
Many might assume that the BBC, as an unrivalled TV and radio broadcaster, would have plenty of video to offer online. This pilot set out to investigate what kind of video worked best online, moving away from the traditional packaged TV report.
As the head of BBC News Interactive Pete Clifton said at the Future of News conference in London on Thursday, video should complement stories, rather than repeating the offerings of streamed News 24 or the content of an accompanying text story.
The BBC trial started in January with the appointment of an on-demand video producer, embedded with the BBC News website technology section. There was also an attempt to improve tech news coverage across TV and radio, with TV reporter Rory Cellan Jones given a brief to work across platforms.
The on-demand video producer, Andrew Webb, talked about some of the growing pains. He was responsible for filming and editing video for the website. He had to learn new software and deal with the competing technologies the BBC using for video.
The experience was “bamboozling”, saying that at one point he was using 15 different pieces of software. Something that now takes him 30 minutes to do used to take him four hours. Given the pressures of time, he ended up learning much of the software out of office hours at home.
Aside from technological obstacles, there were editorial issues to resolve, above all what kind of video material worked best alongside an online version of the story. During the course of the trial, the BBC experimented with different styles. This ranged from short show and tell videos to longer interviews to more traditional packaged reports. Some of the show and tell pieces proved extremely popular – three pieces exploring aspects of Microsoft Vista received more than 400,000 page views, far more than the TV reports usually offered online.
Some of this material was offered by the BBC in Real or Windows Media format, which opened in a separate video. But halfway through the trial, the BBC started to experiment with Flash video embedded in stories. It also played around with the placing of the embedded video in a story. Unsurprisingly, the BBC found that video at the top of a story proved far more of a draw than when the video was embedded further down the page.
In one case, a video showing a piece of software developed by MIT Labs accounted 40% of all the video consumed on that day. Waters attributed the video’s popularity to the fact that it added something that wasn’t in the online story. Readers could click to see how the software worked. It also helped that the video was at the top of the story.
TV vs on-demand
This was not just a trial about the web. Part of the brief, explained Waters, was to try to investigate the differences between the demands of a TV and an on-demand audience. This entailed Rory Cellan Jones producing different versions of a story for the two platforms. It also meant that whereas TV might only run one or two reports on an issue, the website could offer more video to satisfy BBC viewers interested in learning more about a topic.
When the BBC followed a new media family, TV ran a piece at the start of the project and one at the end. By comparison, the website offered four pieces, following the ups and downs of the family in more detail. One unexpected outcome of this was that BBC News 24 then asked for a 20 minute mini-doc based on the on-demand material.
Webb explained that from the start, he sought to produce material that matched or exceeded BBC TV standards, knowing that some of the video could make it onto News 24 or BBC World.
The project was due to end, but it has been so well received that the BBC is continuing with it. It also recently appointed an on-demand editor to source footage that works for interactive platforms. But the trial using embedded Flash video is over and the BBC is now looking at the results and considering how to implement it in the future.
What has the BBC learnt so far that would be useful to other news organisations? From Webb’s perspective as the on-demand producer:
- Producing video for online is a time-consuming process, especially if the material is to match BBC broadcast standards
- Juggling roles as a video producer, reporter and editor is a challenge, especially when you throw in additional factors such as writing stories for the website and meeting daily deadlines
From Waters’ perspective, as the editor leading the project:
- There is a clear demand for on-demand video
- Audiences like Flash, with 85% of users saying they would watch more Flash video
- Video embedded at the top of a story attracts more clicks than further down the story or video in a separate pop-up video
- Video can offer added value to a text piece
- TV reporters can be re-educated to think about the needs of an on-demand audience
- Show and tell videos can be “a powerful form of story-telling”.
There is still much more to discover about how video works on the web, both in terms of content, approach and delivery. But one key point the BBC trial shows is that on-demand video is distinct and different from video produced for TV.