The Smart Thing About Dumb Mobile Video News

#30SecondstoKnow, '15 Seconds to Fame' video clips are rapid and vapid, but not without value

Mobile News NBC
Mitch Blunt for Variety

I’m not sure whether to be depressed or impressed by new NBCUniversal video initiatives #30SecondstoKnow and “15 Seconds to Truth.”

Perhaps the former hashtag has shown up in your Twitter feed since its introduction in February. Xerox Corp. sure hopes it has; the company is the sole sponsor of the yearlong torrent of 30-second clips that has been raining steadily across a broad array of NBCU-owned TV and digital channels.

As the name indicates, the clips (see examples)  try to explain a topic in half a minute. Because they are available on NBCU news and sports properties, they generally pertain to those coverage areas, e.g., explaining what a restricted free agent in the National Football League is, via NBC Sports; or illuminating how to maximize your social security distribution, via CNBC.

But #30SecondstoKnow sounds quaintly verbose compared to “15 Seconds to Know,” which MSNBC announced earlier this week (see first installment).

As you might imagine, #30SecondstoKnow and “15 Seconds to Truth” are fairly ridiculous. For starters, the notion anything can be explained with any degree of value in such a short time span is preposterous. After being blamed for decades for dumbing down the news into bite-sized morsels, TV now seems to be handing off that baton to smaller screens.

Perhaps at some time in the near future, the entire evening newscast will be boiled down to 30 seconds, as if it were an outtake from “Idiocracy.”

Yet despite the misgivings, there’s actually something worth admiring about these video efforts.

Media companies get a lot of flak for always having to play catch up to smaller startups that manage to understand and service audiences on digital platforms more effectively. Believe it or not, #30SecondstoKnow may be part of a broader trend in which lumbering conglomerates are proving to be more proactive and nimbler than expected.

Young users are increasingly consuming social-media-driven shortform mobile video like Vine, but there isn’t much programming devoted to this growing audience. Caught unaware by user behavior patterns too many times in the past, Big Media isn’t about to be taken by surprise this time around, and it’s buying its way into this nascent category before someone else gets there first.

NBCU isn’t even the only one out there trying the sub-minute programming; CNN just announced a “15 Second Morning” program at its upfront presentation last week that will come out of its new digital studio unit.

It’s probably no coincidence that in January, NBCU took a minority stake in the company creating “15 Seconds to Truth,” NowThis News, a mobile-video content provider backed by Clear Channel CEO Bob Pittman and venture capitalist Ken Lerer. The latter knows a thing or two about getting in on the next big thing, having invested early in BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post.

Just one month prior, News Corp. acquired user-generated mobile-centric news programmer Storyful for $25 million. That same December, Scripps paid $35 mil to snap up Newsy, which has a team of 35 employees cranking out mobile news clips.

Make no mistake, this is a sector to watch. Wherever young eyeballs congregate, companies need to be there experimenting with the kind of content that will keep them watching. Naturally, there is going to be a lot of failure along the way, but brief video-news snacks have as good a shot at cracking the code as anything else.

But some ingenuity is called for here. If the videos in #30SecondstoKnow were produced with a shred of creativity instead of being little more than talking-head experts blathering in front of a camera, these info-McNuggets might even have a chance to resonate. (And if the countdown clock in the corner of the scene doesn’t convey the already abundantly compressed timeframe, don’t worry, the buzzer that goes off at the end of each clip will wake you to the fact.)

Most ludicrous of all, each #30SecondstoKnow clip comes with an 18-second pre-roll ad for Xerox, which kind of defeats the brevity of the clips. But this is, after all, native advertising, so what follows the pre-roll is really beside the point. If Xerox were paying to have celebrities sit on their machines to provide copies of their posteriors, that’s what NBCU would produce.

So detest these efforts if you must for shrinking already infinitesimal viewer attention spans. But respect the strategic impulse that’s bringing these initiatives to life.