The television empires are imploding, and perhaps the most spectacular conflagration has been seen at CBS News, with downward diving ratings and the the early departure of Katie Couric from the Evening News. Now CBS is betting on the web to recapture the TV-less generation, or cord-cutters, in a new show called What's Trending, which takes a evening news-style investigative eye to hot online stories.
Some media critics aren't convinced it'll succeed and have already begun heckling the show with accusations of unoriginality. The show does have some innovative features, including a weekly video infographic and a partnership with the Webby's. But, ultimately, like other online sensations, it'll depend as much on the execution as the content.
Host Shira Lazar and Executive Producer Damon Berger are betting that information-addicted young viewers are desperate to be "in the know."
"If you were at a cocktail party," says Berger, What's Trending will put you "in a position" to spark the most interesting conversation topic or add in a unique insight. Trending topics and viral videos are this generation's New York Times opinion column; being aware is a prerequisite to the conversation (as this hilarious clip from Portlandia illustrates).
What's Trending aims to be the one-stop-shop for all web buzz, offering juicy insights into viral stories, so their audience can be king of the cocktail party. That's not to say What's Trending will be Justin Bieber and LOL cats, "We're more interested in covering something that is a piece of culture," says Berger." Just yesterday, they had a guest post by Alex Howard, a journalist specializing in Government 2.0, to comment on Gingrich's and the Republicans' 2012 social media push.
Like Al Jazeera's The Stream, an editorial team separates the social media wheat from the chaff, utilizing online curation tool, Storify, to stack relevant quotes and videos from the web into a seamless, informative story. A live, produced 30-minute weekly show (at 10 a.m. PST on Tuesdays) supplements a constantly updated blog, which engages users through comments, Twitter, and Facebook.
The second, much riskier bet, is that web celebrities have the same intrigue as politicians, entertainers, and business giants—think about if Larry King interviewed the "Double Rainbow Guy" or Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who was instrumental in the Egyptian uprising. Until now, many have sidelined web celebrities as afterthoughts, much the way Twitter was before it went mainstream. Thus, Lazar's and Berger's success ride on if they can show the world that there's more value to web sensations than just a 10-minute sharing break on Facebook.
In many ways, the show isn't much of a financial bet for CBS News: Sponsor AT&T is flipping most of the bill for regularly advertisement space. Lazar and Berger maintain editorial control, oversaw the construction of the new Hollywood studio themselves, and do all the other legwork typical of startup entrepreneurs. Regardless of what happens with What's Trending, they may certainly have conceived the future funding model for television pilots in the post-scheduling scarcity world of online viewing.
But in terms of content, the deck is decidely stacked against the eye. A cable network that traffics in similar material, G4, has never been able to rise above also-ran status, despite cultivating a loyal band of viewers. And when old-school nets, such as CNN, have brought social media to television, the results have rarely been electrifying.
Original Vs. Unoriginal
Media critic and New York University journalism professor, Jay Rosen, has already given What's Trending the ultimate thumb's-down: a glib dismissal on Twitter:
And just what is currently Trending on Twitter at this moment?
#youwerecooluntil , #heyjustin , #seenomore , English GCSE , ProudOfJoeJonas , DB5K, MC1123 , RowlingsArmy , ExcitedForOtherside , OrgulhoNXZERO
And there you have it.
The rundown for NBC Nightly News it is not.
But perhaps, in search of ratings, it should be. As I said a long time ago, I am buying a farm in England for a reason.
The critical narrative so far is clear: What's original about What's Trending? While Lazar certainly has a battle ahead to cut through the online noise, the show does have three novel ideas that may help distinguish it: a weekly motion infographic (launched exclusively with Fast Company), a weekly spotlight on social good, and a partnership with the Webby's to highlight Internet savvy from around the web.
Infographics combine the best of two web obsessions: data and eye candy. Infographic assemblyline Column 5 will be producing a motion infographic every week for the show. Here's a first look at What's Trending's video today.
Philanthropy has a special place in the web's heart. Twitter, SMS, and Facebook permit easy alerts and calls for charity. Tech giants like Google can use existing tech to help disaster victims. Many online new sites even have dedicated channels to prosocial stories: Huffington Post's Impact section, Fast Company's own Ethonomics channel, and Mashable's Social Good tab. What's Trending has partnered with Good magazine, an outlet dedicated to highlighting the better side of human nature, for regular feature called "People are Awesome." "I think its a responsibility when you have a platform to shine light on things that aren't necessarily trending but people should know about," says Lazar. "The Internet is the active part of social good," continues Berger, noting that "connected technologies" transform awareness into direct action.
Perhaps the only online award to break into the main stream is the Webby's, an annual gathering that nominates and celebrates the best inventions, from business blogs to games, from around the web. The partnership helps give the Webby's daily newsletter, Netted, a bigger audience, and might give What's Trending some of the viral spice surrounding the must-see appeal of Webby attention.
Much like a local news program is the epicenter of small town conversation, Lazar and Berger are betting that the web has its own culture, events, and celebrities. In part, they might be fighting the same battle as traditional media: If something is truly popular, anyone who regularly checks their Twitter feed will already have heard about it. But, if the growing web audience craves more than 140 characters (which is a big assumption), and the execution is stellar, What's Trending could be successful. Critics be damned.