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TV Snap(chats) to Attention

By Published on .

TV is trying on a new lens. Hover over this image and see for yourself. Credit: Photography by David Hall. Illustration by Tam Nguyen. Interactive by Chen Wu.
TV is trying on a new lens. Credit: Photography by David Hall. Illustration by Tam Nguyen.

Andrew Springer doesn't sleep much, not since he started overseeing production of NBC News' twice-daily Snapchat Show, "Stay Tuned," in July. Springer gets to 30 Rock, NBC's Manhattan headquarters, around 2:30 a.m. to review the morning's script with producers who've been up tracking events like President Trump's overnight tweets. They begin taping the first high-octane episode at 3:30 a.m., post it at 7 a.m.—and start the next one at noon, to go up at 4 p.m.

One afternoon in August, Springer and a half-dozen producers and assistants buzz around one of the hosts, Gadi Schwartz, as he reports on a motorcycle chase in California and a 16-year-old running for mayor in Kentucky. The team interrupts a few times, asking Schwartz to change his pacing, to try a line differently, to smile. Schwartz sounds more like a friend talking current events at the bar than an anchor reading a teleprompter. He speaks to a TV camera turned on its side, to match Snapchat's vertical format.

"Stay Tuned" is a 24/7 operation, with 30 people working full time to crank out two hyperactive videos on weekdays and an episode a day on weekends. Their product bears no resemblance to a typical NBC News broadcast. Lest there be a moment for viewers to consider skipping ahead or quitting, producers frequently cut the screen in half and stuff it with footage and text.

All told, it takes about eight hours to produce, shoot and edit a single episode. Run time: about two minutes.

"It is really highly produced," says Springer, executive producer of "Stay Tuned" and director of social media strategy at NBC News, during Ad Age's visit to the show. The set is a sliver of NBC's newsroom dubbed "Town Square"; its office space is annexed from the network's election-season Decision Desk area. "Everything has to be really thought out," he says.

It's pretty high-polish for a mad dash to the future by NBC, along with networks from Discovery to E! on similar quests. And it's markedly different from the spray-and-pray strategy that prevailed when TV tried digital before, dumping snips of existing shows across every and any platform.

Snapchat isn't looking to recreate the TV model, the way Facebook and Twitter are going after longer-form and live video. Much of what appears on Snapchat may resemble TV's glory days, with interrupting commercials and content that always fills the screen. (Schwartz would even find himself knee-deep in water a few weeks later, covering the devastation of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma alongside his broadcast and cable news counterparts.) But Snapchat takes only original content.

Executives at the messaging app are also decidedly picky about who gets real estate in its high-traffic Discover section, which TV networks share with publishers including BuzzFeed, Mashable, GQ and Cosmopolitan. So, one year into its first partnerships with TV networks to produce made-for-Snapchat content, it is forcing traditional programmers to rethink mobile video.

TV executives have to try something, and with feeling. The Big Four broadcasters lost 17 percent of their total prime-time audience in the last five years, falling to an average of 6.3 million viewers in the 2016-17 season from 7.6 million in 2011-12. Among 18-to-49-year-olds, more ominously, the plunge was one third. Each new season brings another significant drop, largely at the hands of digital rivals such as Snapchat itself. So even as Wall Street worries about Snapchat's slowing user growth and relentless imitation by Instagram, networks hope it can bring them the same young people steadily watching less TV and entice them to check out longer shows on bigger screens. It's TV's chance to show everyone what successful transformation looks like.

If it, you know, succeeds.

'Stay Tuned' aims to combine NBC News traditions with a Snapchat sensibility.
'Stay Tuned' aims to combine NBC News traditions with a Snapchat sensibility. Credit: Photography by David Hall. Illustration by Tam Nguyen.

"This is much tougher than just shooting and uploading," says Tom Fishman, senior VP for audience growth and engagement at MTV Digital, which produced new versions of the former MTV series "Cribs" and "Girl Code" for Snapchat this summer.

That's partly because Snapchat heavily involves itself, giving copious notes on what its users like and what they tap the screen to skip. "Snap is discerning about the way they want to present the portfolio of content offerings," Fishman says. "There's a lot of back and forth with Snap. This is very intentionally more highly produced."

Snapchat has no quarrel with that take. "We are unashamedly pretty difficult," says Nick Bell, Snapchat's head of content and a former News Corp. executive. Snapchat isn't necessarily rewriting jokes, he says, but it's not above telling producers to move up the punch line.

If it's ultimately to Snapchat's benefit that its content keeps users coming back, Bell argues that Snapchat can recapture TV viewers for the networks as well, calling the platform "where you fall in love." Under this theory, your mobile phone becomes the first place you encounter programming from NBC News, A&E, Viceland and the other TV programmers making Snapchat Shows. And when you get home, you turn on a big-screen, surround-sound version.

"Maybe common sense doesn't always win, but in my view there's no better place to watch content for a long period of time than the TV," Bell says.

Another possibility is that TV networks' efforts could ultimately work mostly in Snapchat's favor, making it a sticky content hub that doesn't drive younger viewers anywhere else. And even that scenario remains unproven.

Still, major TV programmers seem willing to try. While networks like Comedy Central and CNN had originally partnered with Snapchat on Publisher Stories, they are moving over to Shows. CNN started a daily news showin August and Comedy Central is currently in conversations with the platform on concepts.

Picture this

It's hard for anyone over 30 to imagine these Snapchat Shows becoming the next must-see TV. In August, on the first episode of E!'s "Ask Kylie," in which Kylie Jenner answers fan questions in an oblique promotion for her TV show, Jenner revealed how she deals with anxiety. (Answer: She jumps on a trampoline in her mom's backyard.) It's not exactly "This Is Us."

But that's intentional. "'Nightly News' is the delicious steak dinner you have, the 'Today' show is like the breakfast and we are the protein shake," Schwartz says.

For Snapchat's young, core demographic—75 percent of the 173 million daily users are between 13 and 24 years old—its on-screen faces are fast becoming familiar.

"I've never had a friend see me when I'm on MSNBC," says Savannah Sellers, Schwartz's co-host on "Stay Tuned." "And then a couple of days on Snapchat, they're like, 'What the heck, you're on Snapchat.'"

The same is true for Peter Hamby, a former CNN reporter who decamped to host "Good Luck America," a political show produced by Snapchat. His mom was disappointed when he left the cable news behemoth. But as they walked down the street together six months later, several people approached Hamby and identified him as "that Snapchat guy." Hamby's mother was shocked by his new brand of celebrity, he says.

TV executives are less intrigued by the anecdotes than the data. NBC's companion series for "The Voice" on Snapchat averaged 45 percent more viewers in its second season than the first, topping 4 million. E!'s celebrity-news show "The Rundown" has tripled viewers to 7.5 million since its introduction last September. A&E's "Second Chance," which reunites exes to see if romance reignites, doubled viewers to 8 million between its April debut and its season finale eight weeks later. Three episodes of Shark Week video this summer averaged 12 million viewers for Discovery. And the first month of "Stay Tuned" drew a total of 29 million people.

Those "viewers" can't be compared with TV ratings, which represent the average tune-in throughout an episode; Snapchat counts a view as soon as someone taps an episode to begin, even if she stops a second later. But TV producers say Snapchat also shares with networks incredibly specific data that shows every single person watching, when they watch and when they don't.

"It's a different demo than on our networks, and that makes us very excited," says Maggie Suniewick, president of NBC Universal's digital enterprises. "We are in a world where there are certain people that aren't going to watch the prime-time shows."

(From l.): 'Stay Tuned' Executive Producer Andrew Springer; NBC News Social News Gathering Senior Editor Emmanuelle Saliba; and hosts Gadi Schwartz and Savannah Sellers.
(From l.): 'Stay Tuned' Executive Producer Andrew Springer; NBC News Social News Gathering Senior Editor Emmanuelle Saliba; and hosts Gadi Schwartz and Savannah Sellers. Credit: David Hall

It's an audience advertisers are eager to find as well. WPP CEO Martin Sorrell has said his agency holding company plans to double Snapchat spending this year to about $200 million. Revenue at Snapchat parent Snap Inc. soared 153 percent in the second quarter to $181.7 million.

That was below analyst expectations, however, and includes more than Snapchat Shows. WPP's outlay will also be a pale shadow of the check it writes to Facebook—"a flea on the elephant's backside," as the colorful Sorrell put it to CNBC last month. Then consider the $70 billion marketers still spend on TV every year.

"There's a lot of interest and some demand, but inventory at this point certainly suggests room for negotiation," says Doug Rozen, chief digital and innovation officer at Omnicom Group media agency OMD Worldwide.

Some potential advertisers are put off by the need to make ads specifically for the platform. Others just don't "get" Snapchat, an app that's famously opaque for those who aren't regular users.

Then there are other ways for marketers to use Snapchat without buying into Snapchat Shows. NBC's "America's Got Talent," for example, has a Snapchat account that users can follow instead of a series. That helps Dunkin' Brands extend the reach of its TV sponsorship. "This allows us to augment parts of the audience that may or may not be watching our partnerships live," says Nick Dunham, director of media and partnerships at Dunkin'.

Recruiting more marketers is central to making TV work for Snapchat, and vice versa. Staffing a "Stay Tuned" isn't cheap, after all. Snapchat Show ads are usually sold by both the networks and Snapchat, with revenue divided between them. Networks sometimes bundle them with other inventory, as in one $400,000 package that included ads in a Snapchat Show plus traditional TV or other elements. Prices vary widely.

Ads in "Stay Tuned" have promoted brands including Sony, Airbnb, Go-Gurt, Perrier, Xfinity Mobile and the author and motivational speaker Grant Cardone. Marketers can also back entire series, as Match.com did for "Hungry Hearts," a new Snapchat dating show from the Viceland cable channel starring rapper Action Bronson.

For brands aching over lost cachet with younger consumers, Snapchat offers a new chance, says Kieley Taylor, who leads paid social at WPP's GroupM.

Echoes

Fred Graver was one of MTV's first freelance copywriters, hired by Judy McGrath, its future CEO. Today he leads digital content creation for Discovery Communications. And TV on Snapchat looks a lot to him like the early days of cable. "With cable, it introduced 24/7 programming and changed the idea of dayparts," says Graver, who's working on a Snapchat series based on the TV show "MythBusters." "It's that same reinventing for new habits. It's a land grab right now and all about marking your territory."

That, and marketing it. Merely choosing the "tile" images and headlines to lure users can be laborious. Graver and his team liked the title "Sharks That Are Just Not Into You," for example, for a Shark Week episode about sharks that won't attack humans. Then they ran it through Snapchat software that creates four tiles with different images and headlines. The system publishes all four to an equal number of people so programmers can see, within hours, which does best and what types of people click on each. The best two go out wide. In the case of that Shark Week episode, a bit at the end about what to do if you are attacked proved powerful. The winning headline was, "How to Survive a Shark Attack."

Snapchat knows "every single person watching, when they watch and when they don't," Graver says. "What was really helpful is Snapchat is willing to share what they know about the audience and guide us."

While Snapchat doesn't believe it will ever be the place for a 44-minute drama, more variety is on the way. TV on Snapchat so far comprises nonfiction and unscripted series like "Stay Tuned" and CNN's "The Update." And those two are sometimes the only Snapchat Shows posted on a given day. By the end of the year, Snapchat is aiming for three Snapchat Shows a day or more—including its first scripted efforts. One will be an animated comedy based on standup routines. ("If we tried to repurpose this on another platform, it would look absurd," says Steve Beslow, general manager at Conan O'Brien's Team Coco Digital, the company behind it.)

The field is far from clear, of course. It's more like a destination battleground. Facebook has just rolled out a "Watch" section for shows such as A&E's "Bae or Bail," about couples facing their fears. YouTube last month hired two TV veterans to bolster its subscription service, Red, and ordered 10 episodes of "Cobra Kai," a half-hour comedy spun off from "The Karate Kid." Twitter is pitching advertisers on its live NFL talk show and a news network from Bloomberg. Amazon is streaming 10 NFL games on Thursday nights this season and another on Christmas.

But TV has to find its future. When NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke first sat down with Snapchat, he had a challenge on his mind: how to get more value from the Olympics, which he had agreed to carry through 2032 at a cost of $7.7 billion. "He was pretty bold and said, 'We paid a lot of money for these rights ... but one of our concerns is less young people are watching on traditional linear,'" Bell recalls. "'How do we make sure we maintain the value?'" True to Burke's unease, the 2016 Olympics' prime-time audience fell 15 percent from 2012, according to Nielsen. But NBC's Olympics coverage on Snapchat reached 35 million people, Bell says.

It's too early to say how exactly TV and Snapchat will interact, whether Snapchat is a second-screen fad, a test bed for bigger-screen shows, a nick-of-time lifeline to TV's lost audiences or something even better, like a spacious new home for TV and its big-spending advertisers.

At a minimum, Snapchat is giving TV networks the freedom to think beyond the confines of prime time and repurpose their existing shows for digital. Maybe it even lends TV content a new—or is it old-fashioned?—sense of urgency. A way to retrieve back episodes is likely at some point, but for the moment, each installment disappears 48 hours after it hits. Is Snapchat creating appointment viewing for a new generation?

That's the hope of executives like NBC Universal's Suniewick. "For the first time," she says, "we are getting to a place where digital content is a must-watch."

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