YouTube: It’s bigger than the world’s biggest TV network.

Just a few years ago, who would have been willing to predict that YouTube’s user base would outstrip China Central Television, the world’s largest TV network?

Yet, that’s exactly what’s happened: As of today, around 2 billion unique users watch a YouTube video at least once every 90 days, whereas CCT has around 1.2 billion viewers.

Consider that in 2013, YouTube’s user base was hovering around 1 billion. So that’s quite a jump in fewer than five years.

Here’s another interesting YouTube factoid: Nearly 400 hours of video content is being uploaded to YouTube each and every minute.

For anyone who’s tallying, this amounts to 65 years of video uploaded to the channel per day. No wonder YouTube has become the single most popular “go-to” place for video content.

But there’s more:  Taken as a whole, YouTube viewers across the world are watching more than 1 billion hours of video daily. That’s happening not just because of the wealth of video content available; it’s also because of YouTube’s highly effective algorithms to personalize video offerings.

One of the big reasons YouTube’s viewership has expanded so quickly goes back to the year 2012, which is when the channel started building those algorithms that tap user data and offer personalized video lineups. The whole purpose was to give viewers more reasons to watch more YouTube content.

And the tactic is succeeding beautifully.

Another factor is Google and its enormous reach as a search engine. Being that YouTube and Google are part of the same commercial enterprise, it’s only natural that Google would include YouTube video links at the top of its search engine results pages, where viewers are inclined to notice them and to click through to view them.

Moreover, Google pre-installs the YouTube app on its Android software, which runs nearly 90% of all smartphones worldwide.

The average run time for a YouTube video is around three minutes, with some 5 billion videos being watched on YouTube in the typical day.

Considering all of these stats, it’s very easy to understand how Internet viewing of video content is well on the way to eclipsing overall television viewing before much longer. As of 2015, TV viewing still outpaced interview viewing by about margin of about 56% to 44%.  But when you consider that TV viewing is stagnant (or actually declining a bit), while interview viewing continues to gallop ahead, the two lines will likely cross in the next year or two.

What about you? Like me, have you found that your video viewing habits have changed in the direction of YouTube and away from other platforms?

Al-Jazeera axes the “Comments” section on its English-language website.

What took them so long?

This past week, al-Jazeera.com, the English-language website run by the Qatar-based international media company, announced that it is disabling the comments section on its site.

In a written statement, the company complained that what was originally designed to “serve as a forum for thoughtful and intelligent debate that would allow our global audience to engage with one another” had devolved into a free-for-all, with the comments sections “hijacked by users hiding behind pseudonyms spewing vitriol, bigotry, racism and sectarianism.”

“The possibility of having any form of debate was virtually nonexistent,” the al-Jazeera statement added – as if any further explanation for their action was needed.

I have a comment of my own in response to al-Jazeera: “Welcome to reality.”

Al-Jazeera is hardly an innocuous website in cyberspace. It reports on some of the most explosive developments affecting the most volatile regions of the world.  Considering the sparring parties in these never-ending conflicts, complaining about “sectarianism” is almost laughable.

Is there a more “sectarian” group of people on the face of the earth than those who are exorcised about the inhabitants of the Middle East – or of Muslims, Christians and Jews in general? I don’t know of any.

As for the comments section being a repository of derision and hate, how is anyone surprised? What other result could one expect – especially since there was little or no attempt by al-Jazeera personnel to moderate the comments section?

The fact is, unmoderated comments sections that also allow for poster anonymity are a blanket invitation for “the inmates running the asylum.” Comments that are left in these “anything’s allowed” forums chase the well-intentioned participants away – and fast.

On the other hand, I’ve found plenty of well-moderated forums and comments sections that are as valuable as the underlying articles themselves.

That doesn’t happen all by itself, of course. Good moderation takes effective policies – requiring commentators to identify themselves for a start.  It also requires an ever-watchful eye.

Evidently, al-Jazeera and others like them found the not-insignificant effort required to perform this degree of moderation to be unworthy of their time or financial resources. And as a result, their forums became worthless.

And now they’re history.

The Connected Home

It doesn’t take a genius to realize that the typical American home contains more than a few digital devices. But it might surprise some to learn just how many devices there actually are.

According to a recent survey of nearly 700 American adults who have children under the age of 15 living at home, the average household contains 7.3 “screens.”

The survey, which was conducted by technology research company ReportLinker in April 2017, found that TVs remain the #1 item … but the number of digital devices in the typical home is also significant.

Here’s what the ReportLinker findings show:

  • TV: ~93% of homes have at least one
  • Smartphone: ~79%
  • Laptop computer: ~78%
  • Tablet computer: ~68%
  • Desktop computer: ~63%
  • Tablet computer for children age 10 or younger: ~52%
  • Video game console: ~52%
  • e-Reader: ~16%

An interesting facet of the report focuses on how extensively children are interfacing with these devices. Perhaps surprisingly, TV remains the single most popular device used by kids under the age of 15 at home, compared to other devices that may seem to be more attuned to the younger generation’s predilections:

  • TV: ~62% used by children in their homes
  • Tablets: ~47%
  • Smartphones: ~39%
  • Video game consoles: ~38%

The ReportLinker survey also studied attitudes adults have about technology and whether it poses risks for their children. Parents who allow their children to use digital devices in their bedrooms report higher daily usage by their children compared to families who do not do so – around three hours of usage per day versus two.

On balance, parents have positive feelings about the impact technology is having on their children, with ~40% of the respondents believing that technology promotes school readiness and cognitive development, along with a higher level of technical savvy.

On the other hand, around 50% of the respondents feel that technology is hurting the “essence” of childhood, and causing kids to spend less time playing, spending time outdoors, or reading.

A smaller but still-significant ~30% feel that their children are more isolated, because they have fewer social interactions than they would have had without digital devices in their lives.

And lastly, seven in ten parents have activated some form of parental supervision software on the digital devices in their homes – a clear indication that, despite the benefits of the technology that nearly everyone can recognize, there’s a nagging sense that downsides of that technology are always lurking just around the corner …

For more findings from the ReportLinker survey, follow this link.

Local TV news viewership continues to decline … even as stations ramp up their news coverage.

How’s this for an ironic twist: The Pew Research Center is reporting that the local TV newscasts if ABC, CBS, FOX and NBC affiliates across the United States are continuing to show viewership declines, even as stations are increasing the amount of the local news content they broadcast.

According to Pew, which analyzed Nielsen results for its report, “late” news (10 or 11 pm) suffered an 11% decline to 20.3 million viewers across the United States during 2016.

Early evening news (5 or 6 pm time slots) lost ~9% in viewership, dropping to 22.8 million viewers.

Morning news? It didn’t fare any better, falling a similar ~9% to just 10.8 million viewers.

But despite these continuing declines, there’s scant evidence that local station executives see local news as a losing proposition.

Instead, they appear to be doubling down on it, figuring that local news is one of the few remaining points of differentiation against online news sites that usually don’t provide very much in the way of in-depth local coverage.

Underscoring this, according to a survey conducted by the Radio-Television-Digital News Association and Hofstra University, local TV stations averaged 5.7 hours of news programming per weekday during 2016, which is up slightly from 5.5 hours in 2015.

Stats aside, one has to wonder how much longer local news can continue to be a differentiating factor for local TV stations? Those very same stations are creating their own competition by operating robust websites of their own.  And of course, many people have become quite adept at punching their own zip codes into weather apps to obtain “micro-local” weather information.

Sports? There are thousands of websites and apps available that provide fingertip results and stats down to the most minute level of detail.

Furthermore, as the older population “ages out,” the notion of sitting down at a prescribed hour every day to watch the news on television is likely to go the way of newspapers.  Which is to say, an inexorable slide into irrelevance.

It just isn’t how the world operates any longer … even if one is 60 or 70 years old.

More statistics from the Pew Research Center report can be accessed here.

ESPN: What the heck just happened … and who’s to blame?

Last week, ESPN announced the layoffs of some 100 staffers, most of them on-air talent. This comes after layoffs of ~300 other personnel in 2015, but since those were behind-the-scenes employees, the news didn’t seem as momentous.

There are several factors coming together that make life particularly difficult for the sports network. One big problem is the commitment ESPN has made to pay top-dollar for the right to air professional sports events, particularly NFL and NBA games.

These financial commitments are set in stone and are made well into the future, which means that ESPN is committed to high long-term fixed costs (broadcast rights) in exchange for what’s turning out to be declining variable revenues (viewer subscription fees and advertising).

This isn’t a very good financial model at all.

Which brings us to the second big factor: declining subscribers.

Since 2011, the network has lost ~15 million subscribers. So far in 2017, the network has experienced an average loss of ~10,000 people per day.

The financial impact of these losses is significant. All of those lost subscribers amounts to more than $1.3 billion per year in money that’s no longer going on ESPN’s books.

Sports journalist Clay Travis predicts that if the current trajectory of subscriber losses continues, ESPN will begin losing money in 2021. (And that’s assuming the subscriber base losses don’t accelerate, an assumption that might be a little too rosy.)

The fundamental question is why so many people are no longer subscribing to ESPN. The predictable answer is because services like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon, with their on-demand services, are squeezing cable/satellite TV and its subscription business model.

One way Disney (ESPN’s parent company) has attempted to maximize viewer subscription revenues over the years has been by bundling the network with other, less lucrative Disney media properties like the History Channel, Vice, Disney Junior and the Lifetime Movie Network. In the Disney constellation of channels, ESPN has been the acknowledged “driver” of subscription revenues all along, with die-hard sports fans being willing to subsidize the other Disney channels – often never watched by these subscribers – as the price of access.

But something else is happening now:  ESPN itself has begun to lose viewers as well.

According to television industry publication Broadcasting & Cable, ESPN’s viewership rating has declined ~7% so far this year.  ESPN2’s rating is down even further – an eye-popping ~34%.

Percentages like those aren’t driven by “sidebar” incidental factors. Instead, they cut to the core of the programming and the content that’s being offered.

If there’s one programming factor that’s tracked nearly on point with ESPN’s viewership declines, it’s been the explosion in “sports-talk” programming versus actual “sports game” programming at the network. As Townhall opinion journalist Sean Davis has written:

“If you talk to sports fans and to people who have watched ESPN religiously for most of their lives, they’ll tell you that the problem is the lack of sports and a surplus of shows featuring people screaming at each other. The near-universal sentiment … is that the content provider sidelined actual sports in favor of carnival barkers.”

Davis points out the flaw in ESPN’s shift in colorful terms:

“ESPN went from the worldwide leader in sports to yet another expensive network of dumb people yelling dumb things at other dumb people, all the while forgetting that the most popular entertainment of people yelling about sports stuff for several hours a day – sports talk radio – is free.”

There’s an additional factor in the mix that’s a likely culprit in ESPN’s tribulations – the mixing of sports and politics. That programming decision has turned out to be a great big lightning rod for the network – with more downside than upside consequences.

The question is, why did ESPN even go in that direction?

Most likely, ESPN execs saw the tough numbers on higher costs, subscriber losses and lower ratings, and decided that it needed a larger content pie to attract more consumers.

The reasoning goes, if some people like sports and others like politics, why not combine the two to attract a larger audience, thereby changing the trajectory of the figures?

But that reasoning flies in the face of how people consume political news. In the era of Obama and now Trump, political diehards gravitate to outlets that reinforce their own worldviews:  conservatives want news from conservatives; liberals want news from liberals.

MSNBC and the Fox News Channel have figured this out big-time.

But if you’re starting with a cross-partisan mass media audience for sports, as the original ESPN audience most certainly was, trying to combine that with politics means running the risk of losing one-half of your audience.

That’s what’s been happening with ESPN. Intertwining sports with coverage about bathrooms in North Carolina, transgender sports stars, gun control laws and proper national anthem etiquette only gets your numbers going in one direction (down).

The question for ESPN is how it plans to recalibrate and refocus its programming to truly defend its position as the worldwide leader in sports broadcasting. However it decides to position itself in terms of the delivery of its content – television, online, subscription, pay-per-view or other methods – it should refocus on covering live sports events.

Not sports talk … not debate … not politics or sociology, but the sports themselves.

At one time, not so long ago, sports were a safe refuge from politics and the news. ESPN would do itself – and its viewers – a favor if it sought to recapture that spirit.

Is the Phenomenon of “Fake News” Overhyped?

fnIn the wake of recent election campaigns and referenda in places like the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Austria and the Philippines, it seems that everyone’s talking about “fake news” these days.

People all across the political and socio-economic spectrum are questioning whether the publishing and sharing of “faux” news items is having a deleterious impact on public opinion and actually changing the outcome of consequential events.

The exact definition of the term is difficult to discern, as some people are inclined to level the “fake news” charge against anyone with whom they disagree.

Beyond this, I’ve noticed that some people assign nefarious motives – political or otherwise – to the dissemination of all such news stories.  Often the motive is different, however, as over-hyped headlines – many of them having nothing to do with politics or public policy but instead focusing on celebrities or “freak” news events – serve as catnip-like clickbait for viewers who can’t resist their curiosity to find out more.

From the news consumer’s perspective, the vast majority of people think they can spot “fake” news stories when they encounter them. A recent Pew survey found that ~40% of respondents felt “very confident” knowing whether a news story is authentic, and another ~45% felt “somewhat confident” of that fact.

But how accurate are those perceptions really? A recent survey from BuzzFeed and Ipsos Public Affairs found that people who use Facebook as their primary source of news believed fake news headlines more than eight out of ten times.

That’s hardly reassuring.

And to underscore how many people are using Facebook versus more traditional news outlets as a “major” source for their news, this BuzzFeed chart showing the Top 15 information sources says it all:

  • CNN: ~27% of respondents use as a “major source” of news
  • Fox News: ~27%
  • Facebook: ~23%
  • New York Times: ~18%
  • Google News: ~17%
  • Yahoo News: ~16%
  • Washington Post: ~12%
  • Huffington Post: ~11%
  • Twitter: ~10%
  • BuzzFeed News: ~8%
  • Business Insider: ~7%
  • Snapchat: ~6%
  • Drudge Report: ~5%
  • Vice: ~5%
  • Vox: ~4%

Facebook’s algorithm change in 2016 to emphasize friends’ posts over publishers’ has turned that social platform into a pretty big hotbed of fake news activity, as people can’t resist sharing even the most outlandish stories to their network of friends.

Never mind Facebook’s recent steps to change the dynamics by sponsoring fact-checking initiatives and banning fraudulent websites from its ad network; by the accounts I’ve read, it hasn’t done all that much to curb the orgy of misinformation.

Automated ad buying isn’t helping at all either, as it’s enabling the fake news “ecosystem” big-time. As Digiday senior editor Lucia Moses explains it:

“One popular method … is tapping the competitive market for native ad widgets. Taboola, Revcontent, Adblade and Content.ad are prominently displayed on sites identified with fake news, while there are a few retargeted and programmatic ads sprinkled in. Publishers install these native ad widgets with a simple snippet of code — typically after an approval process — and when readers click on paid links in the widget, the host publisher makes money.  The ads are made to appear like related-content suggestions and often promote sensational headlines and direct-marketing offers.”

So attempting to solve the “fake news” problem is a lot more complicated than some people might realize – and it certainly isn’t going to improve because of any sort of “political” change of heart. Forrester market analyst Susan Bidel sums it up thus:

“While steps taken by … entities to curb fake news are admirable, as long as fake news generators can make money from their efforts, the problem won’t go away.”

So there we are. Bottom-line, fake news is going to be with us for the duration – whether people like it or not.

What about you? Do you think you can spot every fake news story?  Or do you think at least of few of them come in below radar?

“Dying on the Vine”: Why the video sharing service is now history.

vineRemember back in 2012 when Twitter introduced its Vine video sharing service?

Back then, observers were positively breathless in their accolades for the service, with some positing that Vine represented some sort of tipping point in the world of instant communications.

A little more than four years later … and as of November 1, Vine has just been shuttered. How is it that such a vaunted social media platform went from de rigeur to rigor mortis in such a short time?

There are several key reasons why.

Time and place: The year 2012 was a perfect time to launch Vine, as it coincided with when many companies and brands were shifting their focus towards video communications.  At the time, short-form video was a novelty, making it a kind of dog whistle in the market.  But Instagram, newly acquired by Facebook, swooped in and made a big splash, too, while Snapchat attracted younger audiences.  What was Vine’s response to these competitor moves?  If there was much of any, no one seems to have noticed.

Competing … with yourself: Strange as it may seem, Twitter itself ended up competing with Vine in 2015, launching its own branded video playback capabilities.  When something like that happens, what’s the purpose of the older brand that’s doing the same thing?  Twitter’s simultaneous foray into live-streaming was a further blow to a brand that simply couldn’t compete with these newer video services introduced by Vine’s very own parent company.

Commercial viability? — What commercial viability? In all its time on the scene, Vine never figured out a way to sell advertising on its network.  It had a good germ of an idea in sponsored content, but never seemed to capitalize on the opportunities that presented, either.

Knowing your audience: From the outset, Vine attracted a fairly unique and crowd of users, such as people involved in the hip-hop music scene.  It was vastly different from the typical user base in social media – and yet Vine never did all that much to support these users.  As a result, there was little brand affinity to keep them close when the next “bright, shiny object” came their way.

In the social media space, the rise and fall of platforms can happen with amazing speed. Unlike some other platforms, Vine was a big hit from the get-go … but perhaps that turned out to be a double-edged sword.  Vine never did figure out a way to “mature” with its audiences – which eventually left it behind.

In the end, Vine went out not with a bang, but with a whimper.