The Huffington Post launched a new web TV news network, HuffPost Live, this week. It runs live from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. eastern, every day. On Wednesday, I watched all 12 hours. Spoiler alert: I do not recommend doing this.
10:01 – A roundtable discussion about the Romney-Ryan campaign kicks off the day’s programming. The set is big-budget-daytime-TV-appropriate, and the on-air production value and video quality are both shockingly good.
10:12 – The banter is light but informed, and everyone laughs each time Arianna Huffington emails one of them with something to read on air.
10:31 – Coincidentally, I get an email from The New York Times. "Get more out of your subscription with free access to Times videos!" Videos are a growing source of ad revenue online, and Huffington Post is clearly spending a ton of money on both equipment and experienced staff. They’re not just putting a camera on the newsroom for no reason, or forcing shy writers to ad-lib on screen (two personal pet peeves). HPL looks like an honest-to-goodness television network.
10:32 – A television network with very professional hair and makeup, I might add. These girls are so shiny I might lose an eye.
10:37 – It looks like TV, but doesn’t sound like TV. It’s more like talk radio on video. It’s a streaming video version of whatever is "trending" on the Huffington Post site at that moment, with a bunch of opinions from bloggers, experts, and readers. And on HuffPo, as we know, whatever gets clicks gets space on the page—whether Syria or sideboob. Case in point:
"I’ve paged through our website, Marc, and apparently we are still very interested in Kristin Stewart!" says producer Jessica Sanoh.
(A few minutes later, Sanoh reads a comment, pleading with HPL to please stop talking about Kim Kardashian.)
"I know, I’m sorry, but we have to, because, let’s be honest, is she really going away any time soon?"
This seems to me to be circular logic but the segment is too short for me to think about it. On to the next story. Zip, zip, zip.
10:48 – The limitations of HPL’s format become clear during these Google Hangout roundtable segments, with four or five people dialing in at a time. Several people talk at once because they can’t hear each other, random computer noises bleed through, and we can’t hear anyone. The visuals consist of that half-ceiling, half-cubicle-wall view thing, and the audio has that familiar warbly quality that encourages mental tune-out. Sometimes the people in the Hangout are in HuffPo’s offices—why not come to the studio? These segments have the potential to devolve into chaos unless the host is very good at directing questions to each person in turn. This could be a problem.
11:01 – Random quote taken out of context: "If I can quote the shark from SpongeBob…."
11:04 – This moment sums up everything that is good and bad about HPL:
host Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, previously of Al Jazeera English’s "The Stream," shows the audience a screenshot of an email he just received from Huffington Post founding editor Roy Sekoff, consisting of a quote by Marlo Thomas.
11:06 – The topic of this segment is the supposition that "men can be assholes, but women can’t be bitches." That old chestnut.
11:07 – Every aspect of HuffPost Live is meant to encourage viewer participation ("community engagement," in the parlance of our times). The hosts frequently read comments on air that are fresh from the comments stream that runs alongside the video screen. A big red button invites the audience to record a video response, and after producers screen the videos a few real live commenters make it onto the show. As a former talk radio call-screener, I can see the benefits and drawbacks of this method. Screening pre-recorded videos seems like a faster way of weeding out nutters and pranksters than over the phone, but this way you can’t judge what they’ll be like in conversation with other people. The reportedly huge HPL staff better have some screening processes in place. Because, you know, people are crazy.
11:30 – "They have buses in Kentucky?"
11:32 – I am starting to feel warm and fuzzy toward HPL’s rotating cast of hosts. Alicia Menendez is my favorite. She’s thoughtful, smart, seemingly unflusterable, and she talks like a normal person. All the HPL hosts seem intelligent, especially when discussing politics and world news. They’re the kind of informed, friendly people I wouldn’t mind being stuck in a room with all day. Which, I guess, I am.
11:47 - "God Bless America indeed! Okay, we’ve got more conversation coming up next, courtesy of Cadillac."
12:05 – Maybe I’m just watching too much of HBO’s The Newsroom, but the hosts’ banter occasionally takes on a Sorkinesque quality:
"Our audience loves Bill Maher, our community loves Bill Maher."
"You love Bill Maher, right?"
"I do love Bill Maher."
"We have a comment here that says, ‘I do love Bill Maher, but….’"
12:10 – The hosts spend too much time trying to figure out how to pronounce "majorwlblt" so that they can read a comment on air. On-air guests are frequently interrupted so that the host can read a comment from "Jesusocialist" or "Kringle." The hosts are so busy scanning laptops for choice comments to read aloud that they seem to be ignoring the guest sitting right next to them trying to make eye contact. Having spent time with people who work at Huffington Post before, I can report that this frustrating behavior occurs off-camera too.
12:13 – "On the global front, we do have mutant butterflies trending."
12:50 – Danica McKellar is sitting on the studio couch next to a host who appears nervous. The host says he loved her as Winnie on The Wonder Years and tells her several times how gorgeous she is. McKellar, who is there to talk about her new book about math, in which she assures girls that it’s okay to be smart, and to take themselves seriously, and not to focus only on their looks, is thrown off. But only momentarily.
1:32 – Is this what it feels like to be one of those Daily Show interns whose job it is to stay glued to Fox News all day, taking note of when someone says something especially outrageous? At least I assume that’s how they find all those clips.
2:18 – In between segments, they show an overview of the studio and play some music for just a minute or two while the next bit sets up. Sometimes a goofy pre-produced "news quiz" type video plays. I wonder if they’ll eventually incorporate video ads in those breaks. For now, advertising is almost invisible, and sponsors go unmentioned, except for that one time earlier in the morning. Tiny banner ads for "founding partners" Verizon and Cadillac sit below the comment thread, but that’s about it.
2:21 – The potentially problematic nature of the "Community Soundoff" segments will be evident to anyone who has ever read the comments section of any website, ever.
2:38 – "I think that whole article was just an excuse to talk about Fifty Shades of Grey."
"Can someone with a penis please talk?"
3:47 – You know what’s weird? Even though I don’t recommend watching HPL for so many hours in a row, you actually could. By which I mean, I haven’t seen a single story repeat all day. Watching HPL is just like reading the site—click, click, click.
By comparison, every time I’ve flipped over to Fox or MSNBC, they’ve been talking about either the "escalating negativity" of the presidential campaign, or Biden’s latest "gaffe." Every single time. In the absence of breaking news, cable networks are garbage. It’s a repetitive, grating commentary machine, focusing on conflict and scandal. HPL has its share of the same, but it also has 10,000 other things, and it never stays on one long enough to get boring. And there’s a lot less yelling, because usually all of the guests agree with each other. True, HPL also doesn’t provide very much depth, but for that, there’s always the newsp—click, click, click.
4:13 – Six hours feels like six days. Dizzy, I find myself talking back to the screen: as it turns out, I, too, have a lot of opinions about Cinnabon’s new menu item, the "pizzabon."
4:31 – Top story today on "Hot on HuffPost Tweets" is about a young boy’s "bucket list" for his service dog. Bingo, a Jack Russell terrier, is dying of cancer. "This is the kind of thing that does really well for us," says the HuffPost Senior Social Media Editor, "…on social media, I mean."
4:42 – Now: Evangelical Atheists! Coming up: Hating on Single Moms. Later: Jennifer Beals LIVE! My legs are totally asleep and my brain feels like it’s vibrating. What do you think? Join the discussion and I’ll read your comments on the air! BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION. Time to press mute.
6:05 – I turn the volume back up to hear the very pretty hosts Abby Huntsman and Ahmed Shihab-Eldin hosting a segment called "Hating on Pretty People," which is just wrapping up:
"Unfortunately, it is what it is."
"I think that’s a great point to end on."
6:06 – The toss! As the NYC studio shuts down for the night after eight hours on air, the feed switches to the Los Angeles office. I am absurdly excited and relieved for the change of scenery. The set there is more relaxed, dresses and suits are exchanged for plaid shirts and jeans, and the host banter becomes noticeably more sarcastic and flirty. The hosts go on and on about how much they love each others’ work. Oh, L.A.
6:40 – Howard Fineman and some other dudes join host Alyona Minkovski to talk about Americans’ unfavorable view of the political press, caused by the press’ perpetuation of negative attacks by either side of the presidential race. Meanwhile, I happen to have my TV on MSNBC in the background, so I notice when:
7:01 – Howard Fineman appears on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, to talk about negative attacks by either side of the presidential race.
8:07 – The HPL stream goes down, briefly, for the first time all day. In the next eight long minutes I quickly cycle through the exhilaration of freedom, to the anxiety of missing something, to a dull, empty feeling of withdrawal.
8:15 - Aaaaand we’re back! The guest for this segment is Zach Carter, a HuffPo political correspondent in D.C. who was ALSO ON AT 11 A.M. THIS MORNING OH MY GOD WHEN DO THESE PEOPLE STOP?
8:43 – "I painted my nails the color of Mars for this occasion."
9:25 – I was wondering how the comments are being moderated, and now it occurs to me that the answer is "very strictly," otherwise nine out of ten comments would be about how the female hosts are hot (as is the case with most web TV shows).
9:49 – HPL’s second-to-last segment of the day is called "Hate Art? Blame Yourself." (What? Oh. Kickstarter.)
10:01 – No offense to HPL’s ebullient hosts, but I really can’t wait to turn this off. They’re not ready to let me go, though. The conversation doesn’t end now, they say. "You can already start tonight, commenting on the news we are going to be talking about tomorrow."