NBC’s year-old digital video unit has been pushing the boundaries of what a broadcaster’s news content might look like. Its experimental collaborations with MSNBC and Meet the Press may also soon extend to the network’s O&Os.
As TV news audiences age and younger viewers disperse to the far corners of social media to stay informed, what’s a network to do to stay relevant?
For the past year, NBC Left Field has been tasked with finding out. The digital video unit of NBC News launched with a remit to experiment relentlessly to find new, more cinematic ways of telling news stories.
Along the way, it’s using emerging technologies and social media to stretch the fabric of news content. It’s developing a collaborative streak that’s seeing its visual influence play out on other NBC units and shows. Soon those collaborations may extend to some of the network’s affiliates or O&Os as well. And Left Field is finding its own growing audience, especially on OTT.
Matt Danzico launched the unit as its head after seven globetrotting years with the BBC, leading its first traveling bureau and video innovation lab. At Left Field, his initial team of two video journalists has grown to a dozen staffers, and its weekly output has expanded from one story to three, ranging from four-minute stories to a half-hour documentary.
The content’s common denominator is finding the human condition playing out in the news, then bringing out the story through a visually fresh approach.
“Our editorial mission is to create evergreen content that’s topical,” Danzico says. “We like to understand humans through filmed technology and heaps of creativity.”
Building The Team
Hiring for that mandate hasn’t been exactly straightforward. Danzico refers to most of his team as “visual journalists” — highly creative types with a cinematic visual sensibility and a novel take on story structure.
“We are looking for somebody who is having trouble fitting into the industry in other spaces,” he says, “somebody who is creatively minded.”
Unsurprisingly, Left Field’s staffers skew young from straight out of college to their mid-30s. Most have a few years of experience behind them, and they hail from The New York Times, BBC, Bloomberg, Vice and The New Yorker, among other places.
Owain Rich, special projects producer, came to Left Field after 13 years at the BBC, drawn by its promise of experimentation. “We’re always trying to connect with audiences and knock them out of the malaise of the day-to-day things they might see, the tropes of news every day,” he says.
A Laboratory Environment
Left Field operates out of a Union Square studio in downtown New York, far enough for staffers to feel left to their own devices from NBC News’ home base of 30 Rock but sufficiently close to run back and forth for frequent collaborations there.
Unlike their colleagues at NBC News or MSNBC, the digitally-focused unit has a relatively long leash on story production time, unshackled from daily demands with more time to play with structure and new technologies in their content. So far, that content has been confined to topical explainers, feature stories and documentaries.
Rich’s work with colleague Deborah Basckin, another BBC vet, is typical of the unit’s atypical approach to the explainer. For the past months, the pair has been playing with Google Tilt Brush, a consumer-facing VR tool that enables a kind of on-screen virtual illustration. Think of an amped-up version of writing in the air with sparklers, which Rich and Basckin have used to explain why printers are so terrible, why we dream of escaping the city and why trains led to the advent of time zones.
Rich calls the pieces “mixed reality” — more of an 80% real/20% virtual split than the green-screened augmented reality stories currently being developed by the likes of CNN. Behind the scenes, “all this stuff is actually done in camera,” he says. “There’s no actual post production. The graphics are drawn as they’re being filmed.”
The upshot of Left Field’s novel use of Tilt Brush is ease of use. “You don’t need to study an instruction manual to learn how to draw things,” Rich says. “You just draw them.”
The downside is the relatively long lead time it took to apply Tilt Brush to this untested context, where production remains quite bespoke (though Left Field has been able to deploy it in real time on Facebook Live).
Left Field is also making novel use of social media to direct some of its storytelling. Sutton Raphael, who joined the team straight out of the University of Oregon last September, has been producing a series of profiles using the #Tag hashtag (pun intended), which enables viewers to “tag” or suggest potential subjects.
“We wanted to come up with a way to build a more reciprocal relationship with our viewers,” he says, “to really allow our audience to feel responsible for the types of stories we cover.”
The four-to-six-minute profiles use their subjects to intersect with a broader political or social issue, such as this piece on a refugee who survived an ISIS attack and is now pursuing a life in boxing and firefighting in Washington State or this one on a gay mountaineer.
Raphael appreciates the relatively long runway he has to produce such pieces. “We’re pretty fortunate because we don’t have the expectation that we’re going to release our videos the same day we shoot them.”
But how can these experiments help other NBC newsrooms that don’t have such a luxury of time? Can they impact the structure of a daily newscast, many of whose tropes have been baked in for decades?
Left Field Moves To Center
Danzico acknowledges that NBC News is incubating Left Field “because it’s helping them inform the way some other units might want to be producing news in the future.”
Left Field has already jumped out of its silo. Danzico and his teammates frequently collaborate with colleagues at MSNBC and recently worked with Chuck Todd at Meet the Press on a “mixed reality data download” looking at voting habits and education.
Danzico sees its next potential collaborative front in local news. “What I find very interesting at NBC News is its owned stations and affiliate relationships,” he says. “These are units with incredible investigative journalists. How our tiny unit begins to work with those and leverage those is something that I’m already thinking about.”
In the meantime, don’t look for Left Field-type approaches to go seeping into the more quotidian segments of a daily broadcast — say breaking news, sports or weather — anytime soon.
For one thing, Left Field’s staffers aren’t out to smash up all of broadcast’s frames.
“I don’t think the way these programs are being produced is outdated,” Danzico says. “All we’re doing is trying to come up with new styles that fit emerging platforms.”
And even though some of Left Field’s content may end up playing on broadcast, it remains a digitally-focused brand, developing its content primarily for those screens.
Like most news operations, Left Field produces for a variety of platforms including its own website as well as those of NBC News, YouTube, Apple News and NBC News’ OTT app. Its videos typically see more than 300,000 views each, with some topping one million.
Danzico says his biggest surprise has been the size of the audience on OTT. “I hadn’t realized the level of digital content that people were consuming on OTT,” he says. “It’s quite huge compared to the BBC.”
Another surprise for him on that platform has been the length of engagement times. “On OTT, we saw one-third of people who viewed our 33-minute documentary finish it, which was mind blowing to us. We’re producing at various lengths for exactly that reason. We had no idea people would consume it that way.”
Left Field is learning about its consumers themselves along the way. Unsurprisingly, its core audience comprises college-educated city dwellers aged 24-35, mostly from the coasts. Danzico is hoping to draw more from the nation’s middle through efforts like the #Tag profiles, and he and other team members are visiting more markets based in part of how social media directs them there.
Raphael, who is on the front lines producing those stories, is also Left Field’s — and NBC’s — key target demographic in this enterprise. And while visual and structural experimentation are the key MO, he says the stories come down to relevancy for the audience.
“The thing that will always win over an audience is representation,” he says. “As people really emphasize the importance of younger viewers, if they feel their interests and views are being heard, that’s important.”