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NBC's Vivian Schiller: social media has made live TV essential again

ecosystems vivian schiller

The war for the living room will ultimately be won not by gadget manufacturers, but by content companies — the people who make and distribute TV itself. But it’s a two-way street: the internet is changing how even the largest producers of television think about their products.

Vivian Schiller has been on the front lines of change for years. She was the first general manager of what has become the Investigation Discovery channel, then the senior vice president of NYTimes.com, and then the CEO of NPR. Now she’s the Chief Digital Officer for NBC News, overseeing the company’s online efforts — including the newly-acquired MSNBC.com, which is now simply NBCnews.com.

We spoke about the future of distribution, how Twitter and Facebook are changing NBC’s audience, and the challenges of developing real-time news across different platforms and mediums.

NBC News does something fairly important in the world, but it’s kind of meaningless if you can’t reach an audience. You obviously broadcast over the air, but there are all these alternative forms of distribution. How do you think about and prioritize them?

We don’t necessarily prioritize them. We recognize that our audience is in many more places than they were 30 years ago. Television is our bread and butter — and let’s be honest, that’s where far and away the lion’s share of revenue is — but our audience is everywhere. They’re on multiple devices at the same time. So of course they’re watching broadcast television, but they’re on cable, and they’re on their cell phones, and they’re on their Xboxes and Twitter and Facebook. It’s critical that we think holistically about the way we reach the audience.

"There is no such thing as being platform agnostic."

On the other hand, I’m a big believer that there is no such thing as being platform agnostic. You have to tailor the experience for every kind of platform and every kind of audience. So it’s more about being platform orthodox than being platform agnostic.

What you can do on the Nightly News is obviously pretty different than what you can do on the web. How do you think about remaking your content for the different mediums that you service?

You start by thinking about form factor, and the user experience in the moment they are using each device. If somebody is on the iPhone it’s going to be a difference experience and a different use case then if they’e in their living room. You can’t just push out the same content everywhere. You have to tailor it, and thats what we do. We’re microblogging on Twitter at the same time that we’re doing long form investigative reporting on television. We think about it by the use case, by the form factor, and by the best way to deliver the information.

In a perfect world all of those experiences together form the best of our journalistic output. In many ways Twitter is much better suited to fast-moving story than a long form piece. On the other hand, you can’t get the depth and context from Twitter. So we try and drive our audience to experience our journalism in a multitude of ways on their own schedule.

Content providers seem happy with platforms they don’t control on the internet — Twitter in particular. It hasn’t always been like that. There’s always some amount of tension between the broadcasters and the cable networks, because the cable networks own their platform and they want to charge for it. Why are internet distribution services like Twitter and YouTube different?

First of all, rule number one is that you have to be where the audience is. We don’t start with “on which platform do we have the best business model?” That’s a path to ruin. We have to be with the audience, full stop. From there you try to tailor the experience to A: suit the audience and B: make sure that you’re helping yourself.

I think Twitter is a very symbiotic relationship. Of course they benefit — it’s their platform — but we benefit tremendously from Twitter. I don’t begrudge them their success. I’m grateful for their success because it’s helping drive our success. We’re burnishing our brand as a high-quality news provider, we’re sending traffic to our website, we’re sending viewers to television. We’re giving people an opportunity to talk and that breeds loyalty. If Twitter makes a lot of money, more power to them. We will too, with their help.

The internet platforms where the symbiotic relationships are there seem to have taken root much more naturally.

I think of it as a virtuous circle. Social media, the web, and television. Each one of those platforms helps drive and reinforce the other two. That’s the way we look at it. We don’t think Twitter is only good for driving clicks. Twitter is tremendous for driving awareness. The Today Show has insanity because they’re featuring the band One Direction — they’ve got seven million Twitter followers, much of their success is around Twitter. We had lines up the block, up to 52nd Street five blocks away, starting five days ago. A lot of that is about social media.

Coming back to NBC News and not boy bands, we have nine million users who follow our brands on social networks. That’s a tremendous way to keep the audience engaged and to serve them. They use all these platforms simultaneously.

"Once upon a time, the vision was that there would be one big screen in your living room."

Once upon a time, the vision was that there would be one big screen in your living room, and you would do everything on that one screen. So you’d watch your television show while you’re reading your email on the same screen, while seeing tweets on the same screen. That was a notion that was concocted by media companies or technology companies or device manufacturers, but it wasn’t what the audience wanted. The audience is telling us they don’t want everything on one screen — they want to use multiple screens.

The first time I got a television that had picture-in-picture, I thought, “This is so cool! Picture in picture!” Picture-in-picture was like a phenomenon for like six months — who wants to do all that on one screen? To me it’s about about the second screen and even the third screen. The data bears that out. That’s why NBC has invested in Zeebox. There’s so much fragmentation in the second screen environment, and we’re placing a bet on who we think is going be the winner. Frankly our support could help make them the winner.

So how do you program content for multiple screens? What changes do you make in terms of what you send where?

The brand promise of NBC news remains the same no matter what the platform is. We stand for reliable high-quality journalism, and our brand stands for a certain level of accessibility to the audience. We know this because this is what the audience tells us. All the things that the NBC brand stands for are present whether it’s a tweet, a website, an app, a television documentary, a breaking news report.

How do you then speak to the audience on each particular platform? What does a tweet look like through the NBC News brand? What does a slideshow look like? What does a television report look like? You have to understand the way the audience is using that platform, but never deviate from what the brand stands for. That’s our goal. Have we got it down to perfection? Of course not, nobody does. But that’s what we’re striving for. No matter what platform you’re on you know what to expect from NBC news and you can trust it.

Does having a viewer sitting there with an iPad looking at Twitter while they watch the nightly news change how you create and produce the nightly news?

Wow. That’s an interesting and provocative question.

"Social media rewards live viewing as opposed to time-shifting."

I would have a hard time telling you exactly how, but I think absolutely it does. We all have an awareness of the conversation that’s happening concurrent with what we’re doing. Look at the presidential debates — I would have gotten the shakes if I couldn’t have looked at Twitter while I watched the debates. It used to be that conversation happened after the debate, but now you’re getting it in real time.

All of us are incredibly cognizant that the conversation is happening simultaneously with our television broadcast, that it can’t help but impact what you do. I think it’s to the positive, because we’re getting instant feedback and instant conversation. From a business point of view its a wonderful way to drive loyalty to the program as well. Social media rewards live viewing as opposed to time-shifting. If you’re in the television business, that’s a really great thing.

I watched the vice presidential debate in a hotel room over the internet, and I had the single screen experience on my laptop that you’re saying people don’t want on their TV. I had a video player open, email at the bottom, Twitter on the side. I was doing like 50 things at once.

I can’t imagine any other way. I can’t imagine life before that.

So you have a generation of people who are accustomed to getting their news in this very active, very involved way on their laptop screens. How do you get them to pull off and watch the news on television? How do you bring them back to your most important revenue stream?

Well, we’re not providing a live stream of television broadcasts right now. We will be over time, but that will be authenticated subscribers. So part of it is that’s it’s not available — if you want it you have to turn on your television or authenticate online. There is nothing particularly magical about watching it from your living room, we just want to make sure that they’re a customer.

"There is nothing particularly magical about watching it from your living room, we just want to make sure that they’re a customer."

I can be a customer of NBC right now just by putting up an antenna, and I never have to talk to you.

That’s true. That’s broadcast. It’s public airwaves — that’s a whole other stream.

We have readers who tell me all time that they don’t see the difference. Why will NBC send me this signal over the air but not on the internet? Don’t you want to be everywhere?

We are. And we are providing the free news experience — it’s just not necessarily the linear television experience. But if you go to NBCnews.com right now, you will read articles, see infographics, slideshows, and clips from television. We’re serving the audience — it’s not like we’re withholding anything.

Obviously we’re a publicly traded company and we need to make money, but we also consider what we do a public service. None of us are working in journalism because we want to be rich. I know it sounds corny, and there should be a flag waving above my head as I say this, but I deeply care about an informed citizenry. But that doesn’t mean we can undermine our business model, or we won’t be providing a service for an informed citizenry much longer.

Oh, I agree. But the product you put the most production value and resources into isn’t available in the way that your youngest and most attractive demographic wants to get it.

Well, there’s costs associated with streaming. Nobody’s standing in the way of anybody receiving the over the air broadcast signal. There’s no attempt to thwart that whatsoever. But streaming is whole different kettle of fish. There are a lot of lost costs involved with that — a lot of our business model involves cable and satellite partners.

But there are many other ways that we provide vast amounts of information for free to our users, with advertising to support it.

That’s interesting. NBC has gone from being a TV station to producing print journalism, photojournalism, everything at once. How do you manage all of those different editorial components?

We’ve got a lot of people who are very dedicated to what they do, and are constantly looking around corners into the future. We’re trying to stay a step ahead so we can make sure we’re there for the audience on whatever platform they want us on.

That’s why we were one of the first movers on Xbox and one of the first movers to create our own Windows 8 app. We don’t know what’s going to become dominant and what will fade away. Anybody that tries to predict it is going to be wrong at least part of the time. Our job is to create NBC content in the way that people expect it — the audience will tell us what they want.

Explore the ecosystems

This week we're taking a close look at the future of TV and the living room — the great unclaimed space of the technology world. Check back each day for a close look at all the major players, along with a full range of interviews with industry players and reports on everything from the state of remote controls to the future of gaming. Tune in all week for the rest. Here’s a sampling:

Tuesday:
Google, Microsoft, Aereo, Boxee CEO Avner Ronen
Wednesday: Amazon, Sony, live sports, TV apps, Condé Nast’s Dawn Ostroff, NBC's Vivian Schiller
Thursday: Apple, the state of remotes, Vizio CTO Matt McRae
Friday: Independents, New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum, Valve

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