CNN: “Non-Fiction” vs. Reality

Is CNN going the way of MTV? 

Responding to a New York Post report on CNN’s entrance into the reality TV business, the news giant released the following statement:

CNN, which recently announced the hiring of Anthony Bourdain as a contributor, is continuing to explore other nonfiction original series for the weekend. We routinely pursue new talent and programming concepts within the news category and often shoot pilots for any number of our networks.

While we can quibble about the difference between ‘non-fiction’ and reality television, I think CNN is making a savvy decision.

Ted Turner’s network is known for breaking news. Hurricane Katrina, the Aurora shooting, election results: these are the things Americans turn to CNN for. Without breaking news, however, we’re more likely to tune into MSNBC or Fox News – depending on our political persuasion.

Even before the much talked about SCOTUS flub, CNN’s ratings were on a downward trajectory. Ted Turner defended the slide by emphasizing his vision for the network – a vision quite in line with their position as “the breaking news network” I discussed above:

I thought that for the long-term, that would be the best position to be in, even if the ratings weren’t the greatest. If you had the most prestige and you were the network that everybody turned to in times of a crisis, that was the most important position in the news business to hold.

While this may be true (and I can see his point; I, for one, autopilot to CNN for breaking news updates), the decision to produce quality weekend programming – beginning with Bourdain – is a much needed departure from CNN’s traditional thinking, and possibly just the beginning of a ‘shake-up’ the network desperately needs.

Bourdain, leaving his long-time gig at The Travel Channel, talked to Adweek about his departure:

There are a lot of places where me and my team have been wanting to make television for a long time and haven’t been able to. And CNN has the infrastructure and inclination to make those places doable…Getting to do a show in, for instance, Libya, would have been very difficult. We have contacts all over the world, but you’ve got to get there.

As a big fan of Bourdain and ‘No Reservations,’ I may be partial to this sort of programming. Some may question its place on a “hard-hitting” news network, but we’re not talking about Keeping Up With The Kardashians or The Real Housewives of Wherever, we’re talking about documentary programming.

I think it is drastic to say this decision can be compared to MTV’s decision to stop playing music videos, as an outside producer told the Post. In response, media writer Gabriel Sherman tweeted, “Kind of difficult to make the argument you’re a news network when you want to do this,” but other news networks feature similar documentary-style programming on the weekends (Fox News’ War Stories with Oliver North, MSNBC’s Lockup).

The inherent idea that CNN is in dire need of a paradigm shift if it wants to stay competitive in the media landscape is the right one. 

This shift, beginning with the imminent departure of CNN president, Jim Walton, is meant to drive change at the network. In an internal memo, Mr. Walton told employees, “CNN needs new thinking. That starts with a new leader who brings a different perspective, different experiences and a new plan, one who will build on our great foundation and will commit to seeing it through.”

In the midst of an identity crisis, a new leader with a new vision may be just what CNN needs. Major content decisions will likely be held until the regime changes in December, but the network appears headed in the right direction, realizing that it must change with the times if they hope to rebound from this extended slump.

I don’t believe this change will mean an MTV-esque shift to all-reality programming, but I do believe that a new perspective can lead to better reporting, solid programming, and a new identity that will, hopefully, emerge stronger as a result.


Social TV: Is the ‘Digital Watercooler’ the Next Big Thing?

Since Viggle, “the loyalty program for TV,” launched in January, it has attracted more than 1 million users. There has been tremendous hype surrounding the platform; and with such a large focus group, analysts are now beginning to understand the true benefits social TV can provide networks and advertisers alike.

If you’ve never used Viggle before, it works as a dual-screen experience – where users watch TV while simultaneously using a smartphone or tablet to share (to social media) their thoughts on what they’re watching, and to “check in” to shows, an action that earns them points which can be used to purchase rewards. But what can services like Viggle actually do for TV?


According to ratings magnate Nielsen, there is some correlation social TV and ratings. When it comes to key demos – especially 18-34 – social buzz surrounding shows can spike ratings: “a 9% to 14% increase in buzz volume (depending on where a particular show is in its season) correlates to a 1% increase in ratings in the 18-to-34 demo.” Obviously this bump isn’t remarkable, but it does make a difference.

As an ardent social media user, I can see why. I immediately think of Aaron Sorkin’s new HBO hit, Newsroom. Prior to the premier – and during, and after – Twitter was abuzz with anticipation, excitement, and criticism. Being a Sorkin fan (SportsNight, Studio 60, West Wing), I was already committed to watching; but seeing tangible excitement from so many online made me even more anxious to watch. I can certainly see how the ‘social buzz’ surrounding the show may have swayed many into tuning in.


I think this is by far the most important piece of what social TV can bring to the table. By creating an integrated user experience that keeps people coming back, networks can strengthen engagement and deepen the relationship viewers have with series.

USA has been particularly good at this. For several of their most popular original shows, including Royal Pains and Burn Notice, they have created ‘hooks,’ whether that’s extended sweepstakes, games integrated into the viewing experience, or in Burn Notice’s case, an interactive digital graphic novel, sponsored by Hyundai.

By creating this sort of experience, USA ensures a deeper relationship between its viewers and the narrative before, during, and after the show airs, and drives value for its corporate partners.


Social TV has been especially successful at improving the viewing experience for live events, most notably the Olympics and the Academy Awards. By “checking in” to live events, users can participate in fan polls, trivia and other games, and keep track of what other users are saying.

This is crucial. In today’s digital environment, one of the neatest things is to follow along on Twitter while you watch a live event. Seeing election results in real time, getting on-the-spot news updates on important national events, and following major sporting events are all, I would argue, improved by the social experience. For services like Viggle to integrate that social experience into a television setting is highly valuable.


Green as in money, of course.

Watchwith, a “time-based metadata” platform to power social TV apps, can help drive value for networks and advertisers down to the single frame. Simon Dumenco, Adweek’s “Media Guy” described his conversation with CEO and co-founder Zane Vella regarding the future of his brand and social TV:

“We’re creating a world where every frame of TV is rich in possibilities,” he said, sounding every bit the on-pitch evangelist. But the proof is in the pop-ups — the visual manifestation in Watchwith’s back end (not visible to viewers) that creates second-by-second data bubbles that display what the database “knows” about every given scene. In an episode of social-TV (and ratings) hit “The Big Bang Theory,” for instance, a character walks into a room and the Watchwith database serves up information (which in turn feeds into social-TV apps) about exactly which model of Jansport backpack he’s carrying.

With this sort of down-to-the-frame metadata – combined with the audience data already being compiled from services like Viggle – it’s not hard to see why marketers are chomping at the bit. Media engagement is already at an all-time high, and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.

designspiration, etc.

I love cleverly designed, well, anything. Especially ads and marketing material (like movie or concert posters) – even if they are fake or done by amateurs. Thanks to Pinterest, I’ve found Designspiration and Baubau Haus; and both are like crack for anyone like me, afflicted with an irrational love of typography and an (inflated) ‘eye for design.’

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The most recent Pinterest fad in this same vein (check the “illustrations” category) seems to be “minimal” movie posters; and I have to say, I like many of them better than the original. Sometimes flashier just isn’t better. A few of my favorites are below:

On Transmedia Storytelling

Transmedia storytelling isn’t a new phenomenon. Movie studios, book publishers, and video game franchises have been taking advantage for quite a few years. The premise is simple: create mechanisms by which the content will permeate consumer’s everyday life. To do this, a story is developed across multiple platforms of media, delivering unique content that exists within the narrative.

Two common examples are The Blair Witch Project and Pokémon. The Blair Witch Project debuted at the Sundance film festival in 1999. Later released nationwide, a viral marketing campaign developed on the Internet drove popularity. The website quite realistically posed the question, “is it a film or a real documentary?”

This question is a perfect example of creating an integral component of transmedia narratives: “negative capability,” or strategic gaps in storytelling that entice consumers to participate, speculate on unanswered questions, and even create their own content.

Pokémon is an even better example. An imagined world of powerful creatures, Pokémon’s creators created need. The narrative was inherently multi-faceted and encouraged children to buy countless trading cards, video games, comic books, movies, and television series so that they could “fill the gaps” in the story.

A good “story world” is key to success – it can sustain multiple characters, and their stories, and thus successfully launch a transmedia franchise.

In what may be the most visible example and significant development to date, J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore, a virtual Harry Potter wonderland, is leveraging a gigantic worldwide audience, introducing a new way for fans to come together and engage with the Harry Potter world. Starlight CEO Jeff Gomez told Forbes why he sees Pottermore as so important:

“It exists not just to sell ebooks, but to nurture and ultimately expand the canon of Harry Potter itself. That’s historic in many ways…They’ll be doing what most movie studios have yet failed to do, which is to officialize and galvanize a massive fanbase into a single location, and then service their wildest dreams.”

There are, however, examples that exist outside of traditional media. A new project called “The Numinous Place,” which is currently seeking funding through Kickstarter, has the backing of actor Russell Crowe (along with his $25,000).

The brainchild of his longtime friend and screenwriter, Mark Staufer, The Numinous Place will use “video, audio, fake security camera footage, fake newspapers – all of (which) will have more of a visceral impact than words on a page.” A self-proclaimed “cosmic detective story,” it will center around a multi-platform ebook app containing audio and visual components, as well as elements to assist lucid dreaming, or the ability to control your own dreams. The Numinous Place website describes the project as “the world’s first truly multidimensional work of fiction.”

I look forward to The Numinous Place, if only because I think it will be interesting to see how they develop a world from the ground up. When you’re talking Harry Potter, you’ve got an audience – and a huge one, at that – built in; but The Numinous Project will seek its audience, just as it is seeking its funding, digitally – and truly from scratch.

Using Data to Tell a Story

The New York Times compares Usain Bolt to past Olympians as part of the multimedia data story series, “All the Medalists.” Watch below to see just how well today’s 8-year-olds would stack up against Olympians of yore.

This is a prime example of how to use data to tell a story. Infographics are too often over-cluttered, spewing out data, charts, and facts without leaving readers with a concise message. This series from the New York Times (see also 100-meter freestyle and the long jump) succeeds in doing just that in a clear, interesting, and entertaining way.

NOLA and the Case of the Disappearing Daily

New Orleans is the 51st most populated city in the United States. Maybe I’m a purist, but that fact alone should assure a well-written, well-funded daily newspaper. When The Ann Arbor News made the shift from print to – mind you in a considerably smaller market – there were many who expressed their displeasure.  Of the 250+ people employed by the newspaper as of the announcement of the paper’s closing, “more than a dozen” were hired for Forgive me for stating the obvious, but that’s not great turnover.

The owners of New Orleans’ Times-Picayune, an award-winning publication in print for the
last 175 years, are floating a similar plan. The Newhouse family and Advance Publications plan to lay off a large portion of the paper’s employees, begin publishing just 3 days a week
this fall, and operate primarily under the digital outfit, For such a large market, this sort of production schedule is unprecedented, and came as quite a shock to both the Times-Picayune employees and the city of New Orleans.

It’s hard to argue that the business model of print journalism is a highly successful one in this digital age. But that doesn’t mean major cities should start down the path of abolishing their historically successful dailies. Newspapers matter. It’s hard to quantify their impact on public life, but there is much research being conducted that indicates there is evidence – such as lower voter turnout in communities without papers – to support the notion that newspapers make a difference in their communities, even as the industry struggles in a radically changing media environment and hard-pressed economic conditions.

The point, made well by Emily Badger in The Atlantic, is that when a city wants to keep their newspaper, and financial backers emerge who will support the daily format (see: Saints’ owner Tom Benson) – how can the Newhouse family justify holding the paper hostage?

Sure, if these financial backers wanted to start their own print daily, they could. But would it be the same? Imagine the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times shifting to a digital only format. Would citizens trust a brand new daily newspaper over a publication that’s been in print for over a century? The Times-Picayune is New Orleans’ paper, and the community has voiced their desire to keep it that way. One can argue that the Newhouse family owns the paper and can do with it as they please, but in my humble opinion, a community’s daily paper does, in some larger sense, belong to the community. One family should not be able to destroy something others hold dear.

Time Magazine in 2009 offered the sobering assessment that “it is now possible to contemplate a time when some major cities will no longer have a newspaper and when magazines and network-news operations will employ no more than a handful of reporters.” Three years later, that time seems to have arrived. I know many people, myself included, consume their news digitally – online, on their iPads, their mobile phones – but there’s something about a print newspaper that a great deal of the population still appreciates. I may read the bulk of my news online, but I would still find Chicago without The Trib to be a foreign place.

I hope the citizens of New Orleans’ voices are heard – that the Newhouse family comes to their senses and sells to someone like Tom Benson who has the city’s best interest at heart – but the sustaining questions remain: Can newspapers survive under their current business model? Will newspaper owners do anything to curb their decline, or will they simply allow print dailies to fade into the digital format? And most importantly, does it even matter? For New Orleans, the answer is yes. I have no doubt that other major cities will feel the same.

Innovation is Anything but Business as Usual

Brands who remain stuck in their ways, relying on tradition and loyalty, can hope against hope that their name alone carries them through, that their competitors are just flies on the wall. But truly, it is the brands that innovate, and innovate constantly, that have staying power.

The essence of innovation may lie in R&D, but when it comes to marketing – advertising, branding, activation, etc. – innovation is equally as vital. In an increasingly digital world that is more connected than ever before, it is the intersection of innovation with brand activation and advertising that allows for consumer interaction in new, imaginative, and ultimately, beneficial ways.

Social media has the most potential to reshape the way advertisers connect with consumers. Trends like social gaming and social scheduling are at the forefront, with leading brands such as Heineken, Chevrolet, and Visa taking part.

Heineken is by far my favorite example of a brand doing it right. Across the world, Heineken finds ways to immerse itself in popular culture. Ingrained in international soccer, Heineken created the popular “Star Player” game, activating its partnership with UEFA and the World Cup in memorable fashion.

In Singapore, Heineken created a “Social Christmas Tree” – 48 LED screens towering eleven meters high – as a destination for consumers to send messages to friends and family. The tree exhibited one of Heineken’s core brand properties in an effort to unite people from across the world and truly bring social media to life.

Finally, they’ve embraced QR codes in a creative way – allowing Open’er Mustic Festival attendees to record personal messages (detailing who they were, where they were from, what their interests were). The messages were then embedded into a giant QR code sticker that was printed out and placed on their clothing, acting as a popular ice breaker amongst fellow festival-goers.

Heineken isn’t the only one to create viral ads and activations. One of my favorite work-related blogs, Brian Gainor’s Partnership Activation, compiles the best of the best. Two of my favorites take social to heart and create memorable, interactive campaigns that showcase their brand identity in innovative ways.

“Budweiser Scores with PoolBall Concept in Nightlife Settings” – Budweiser in partnership with Ogilvy Argentina:

“ Creates an Element of Surprise with a Mystery Fan Rewards Box”: