Today I did something I haven’t done in a long time: clicked on a link to a Newsweek article. The article in question was about the deletion of a Facebook page for a Latin American news outlet that’s been accused of being a propaganda arm for the Venezuelan government, but before I could even begin reading it, I was confronted with that ugly, cancerous boil that plagues the article pages of many a news site: the autoplay video.
And this autoplay video represented the worst of its kind. Firstly, it was only tangentially related to the actual topic of the article; it was obvious that a web producer was given the marching orders to discard any notion that content should align with the page’s headline and to instead grab the nearest video that fit within a vague topic area related to the article. Secondly, the video contained absolutely nothing creative or original. It simply consisted of stock photos, bland background music, and overlaid text summarizing commoditized news about Facebook.
Videos like these have proliferated across the web and, I think, represent a video bubble that will soon pop, possibly in the coming year. By embedding these autoplay videos in their articles, publishers are implicitly acknowledging that there’s no demand for them, hence why they’re forced to trick users into watching them. This has led to a vast inflation of video “viewership” numbers that publishers report to both their investors and advertisers.
If you press publishers on this issue, they’ll acknowledge that users hate them and that they’re placed in articles purely for business reasons. Here’s a revealing exchange that occurred in a podcast episode in which Digiday editor Brian Morrissey asked CNN editor-in-chief Meredith Artley about CNN’s autoplay videos:
Artley: I agree that it’s not the best experience. C’mon, right, we know that. We’ve all had the experience where something is blaring, and it’s disorienting, you get confused. I do think it’s somewhat normalized, because of Facebook…and we calibrate it. There may be some days or weeks where you’re like ‘chill out CNN.’ There might be other days where we do a little less of it.
Morrissey: (laughing) Q4 is usually every day is autoplay.
Artley: Q4, yes. But it is one way to support a business.
Economic bubbles are defined as assets being produced and sold in a price range that exceeds their intrinsic value, often as a result of excessive monetary liquidity. We’ve certainly seen a strong rise in liquidity via the venture capital funding of media companies — companies that have eventually “pivoted to video” in order to justify their excessive valuations. The last two years have been pockmarked with announcements of media layoffs, with outlets like MTV, Mic, Mashable, and others jettisoning their text-based staff in their efforts to ramp up their video production. This led a writer at The Ringer to worry, “The pivot to video stokes a longstanding existential fear among print journalists: What if writing is now the most important, but third-most-lucrative thing you can do for your media company? What if writing, full stop, isn’t a job anymore?”
The writer need not stress about it too much, because the demand for this video content is virtually nonexistent. In a great post titled “There’s a Digital Media Crash. But No One Will Say It,” Talking Points Memo editor Josh Marshall wrote that there’s “no publisher in existence involved in any sort of news or political news coverage who says to themselves, my readers are demanding more of their news on video as opposed to text. Not a single one. The move to video is driven entirely by advertiser demand.”
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The question is how much advertiser demand there is and how long it’ll last. The reason that standard display advertising rates are so low is that supply far outstrips demand, and we’re probably quickly approaching a scenario where the same can be said for video. In addition to the VC-funded media companies, we have streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu increasing their content budgets by billions of dollars within the next year. Apple is about to drop a billion dollars on new shows, and Facebook is going to spend around the same amount for its Watch tab. We’re about to reach a point where we’ll be producing more high quality video than the average viewer can conceivably consume.
Which brings me back to autoplay. Publishers implement the practice because their organic views on other platforms are underperforming and they need ways to juice their numbers. But that avenue may not be available to them for much longer. Chrome and several other browsers are rolling out updates this year that will block autoplay video, a move that might finally force a reckoning within the industry. Some publishers, realizing how much they’re pissing off their users with autoplay videos, have reached a happy medium: silent autoplay. This allows them to have their cake and eat it too; they have the chance to hook users into watching their video without pissing off the vast majority who just are there to read the article.
So let’s say you’re an investor or brand advertiser who buys into my argument and only wants to work with publishers who are producing real demand for their video. Well, whenever a publisher brags to you about how they receive X million video views a month, ask them what percentage of those views come from website autoplay. You should also be asking about completion rates, considering Facebook’s rule for counting a video “view” as lasting only three seconds — another metric that vastly inflates monthly view counts.
And if you’re a text-based writer who’s worried about what the “pivot to video” means for your job prospects, fear not. The bubble will pop, and you’ll soon find that the demand for your skillset never actually went away.
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