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The CNN App That Will Change TV

I have seen the future of TV, and it is CNNgo.

If the mere mention of a digital extension to a network triggers reflexive skepticism, that’s understandable; all they really do is just mimic linear channels or on-demand libraries. But CNNgo, currently available at no extra charge to participating pay-TV providers, is a rare example of actual innovation. I sampled it during a 10-day free trial that that left me craving more when it ended last week.

Think of CNNgo as CNN to the nth power: As the live channel plays in either a Web browser or a tablet app, it is surrounded with additional content options including contextual links that offer CNN-produced video, text, tweets and photos relevant to what is being discussed live. If a given story isn’t of interest, there’s also a menu of different segments from which to choose that aired anywhere from just minutes earlier to days ago.

For example, I logged into CNNgo the day medical expert Sanjay Gupta was halfway through an explanation of the first diagnosed case of Ebola virus in the U.S., and I was able to drag a slider back to a time marker indicating when exactly CNN broke the news in order to start the story from the beginning and get all the facts. That enabled me to return to Gupta to fully understand his analysis.

But when he started to get repetitive on a story I was eager to explore from other angles, I was able to access related content, from written interviews with medical workers on the ground in West Africa to a previous Gupta commentary in which he discussed the realities of how Ebola is transmitted.

Then when I tired of the subject entirely, a rundown of other stories past and future allowed me to watch a segment on Isis from the previous night’s episode of “Anderson Cooper 360” while waiting for a prescheduled update on the same subject to follow the Ebola report.

That may all sound exhausting to consume, but the user experience is easy and seamless.

What’s so compelling about CNNgo is how it corrects what might be cable news’ biggest problems. First, consider that unless you are tuning in at the very beginning of a CNN show, you typically start by watching a developing story in progress, which isn’t easy to engage with because you are forced to piece together what’s being reported without the benefit of knowing what you missed.

The second problem is that when you watch long enough, anchors begins to get repetitive because they’re trying to counteract the first problem by rehashing everything the viewers who have been watching long enough already know.

The stop-start flow of the news cycle that makes it so easy to change the channel explains in part why CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker is making the controversial move of edging the network more into the kind of nonfiction fare common to cable channels like Discovery. Without the contained narratives of episodic programming, cable news has the same audience-leakage vulnerabilities that sunk Court TV and prompted MTV to abandon music videos.

CNNgo also remedies a third problem common to news organizations of all kinds, which tend to treat their content like an instantly perishable good that has so little value shortly after airing or publication that the best they can do is make it accessible via search in that virtual Hefty bag commonly known as “archives.”

CNNgo extracts more value out of content by getting viewers to take additional bites of the apple long after it ripens on the tree.

No wonder Zucker touted CNNgo as a “revolutionary advancement” at an upfront presentation where the technology was first announced in April, when it was known as CNNx. For all the struggles the brand is having on TV, it really shouldn’t come as any surprise that CNN would be the one to inject an Internet sensibility into the medium given how robust its digital presence is — an attribute that tends to get forgotten given the overhang of its ratings troubles.

Despite the best efforts of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ Interactive Media Peer Group, interactivity is practically a pejorative term in the TV industry in the face of all the aborted experimentation over the years. But what may elevate CNNgo is that there’s a simplicity at the core of its innovation: It’s really just taking the two prevailing modes of TV viewing — live and VOD — and fusing them together.

That may sound self-contradictory but this mashup is essentially what might be called semi-linear; the live feed isn’t cannibalized by its VOD accessories. For instance, not long into my Ebola viewing experience, CNNgo issued an alert to notify viewers that a spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control was about to comment on the U.S. case, which sent me back to the live feed.

Sure, the significant numbers of viewers who watch TV with a second screen in hand could approximate CNNgo with some simple Google searching. PBS’ “Frontline” has also been pretty aggressive about supplying supplementary online materials to its documentaries. But where CNNgo sets itself apart is in blending the experience into one screen with somewhat synchronous elements that aren’t deleterious to the live feed.

If CNNgo takes off, its underlying technology will spawn more than just copycats from its cable-news rivals. The concept probably has value from sports nets like ESPN to lifestyle infotainment like HGTV.

There’s good reason TV networks of all stripes should take note of CNNgo. It’s only by offering added value on digital platforms that’s differentiated from the content offered on TV that the industry’s TV Everywhere initiative is going to get traction.

Just imagine how powerful CNNgo could be once it makes the jump from second screens to the set-top box itself, an advancement currently in development. A telecast in which secondary content options float by on a ticker that can be selected via remote control is an inflection point waiting to happen. CNNgo is far from being a fully formed product, but it’s already well on its way toward taking the evolutionary leap TV news seems destined to make.

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