BuzzFeed’s best-known live video production so far has been of an exploding watermelon.
Now BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Ben Smith wants to boost its credibility as a hard news outlet with the company’s most ambitious live event yet: an election-night broadcast, distributed exclusively via Twitter, that could run five hours or longer.
“We’ve been obsessing about this election for years,” said Smith, previously a reporter for Politico. “This is an incredible broadcast moment.” But he allowed that there have been daunting logistical challenges in pulling off the live Nov. 8 broadcast: “At BuzzFeed there’s a sense of biting off more than you can chew, and that’s energizing.”
BuzzFeed put the plans together for the “Election Night Live” show very quickly. Smith greenlit the concept in September, and then conducted an urgent search for an executive producer to run it. That led him to recruit Bruce Perlmutter, who has a background in TV production working with CNN, MSNBC, and E! and most recently produced the Fox special “Heaven Sent,” in which a skydiver made a 25,000-foot jump sans parachute. (So he’s used to working without a net, a BuzzFeed rep quipped, mixing metaphors.)
The main set for the live broadcast (pictured above in an artist’s rendering) will be on the 13th floor of BuzzFeed’s New York City headquarters near Union Square, in an area that’s usually the employee cafeteria. The sets are scheduled to be constructed Thursday, with Perlmutter overseeing a dress rehearsal with the production team Friday. The BuzzFeed team will be working on putting all the details together up until the broadcast goes live Nov. 8 at 6 p.m. Eastern.
“We still have a thousand things to do,” Perlmutter said earlier this week.
BuzzFeed has a big backer with TV know-how in NBCUniversal, which invested $200 million in the company last year and is about to write it another $200 million check. But for the 2016 election night special, BuzzFeed is not tapping into the resources of NBCU. In its race to jump onto new platforms, BuzzFeed has sometimes stumbled: It encountered a glitch during a live interview earlier this year with President Obama on Facebook that caused the feed to drop after less than two minutes.
Can a brand known for listicles and funny videos manage to break through against traditional TV news on the biggest night of the year for politics? With the live broadcast, involving staffers from across the organization, Smith wants to prove BuzzFeed News is not a flash in the pan. “We still do lists of cats — we do the best lists of cats,” he said. “But we were covering Trump with our eyes wide open long before other publications.”
BuzzFeed “Election Night Live” will borrow some of TV’s horse-race staples: It will include an updated electoral-vote tally and include live reporter dispatches from the Clinton and Trump campaign HQs, and a map of the U.S. (although that won’t be a video monitor — it’s a whiteboard with magnets to indicate the candidates’ wins by state).
But Smith claims the broadcast will break conventions, to put an internet-centric spin on the coverage and speak to BuzzFeed’s millennial-skewing audience. For one thing, it will analyze the projections of other news organizations in real time, and explain why BuzzFeed may not have made the same call at that point. BuzzFeed is working exclusively with a grassroots collaborative effort called Decision Desk, which will forecast election results based on social-media conversation.
“There’s a deeply American tradition of TV networks calling the election,” Smith said. “We want to pull that in front of the curtain.”
BuzzFeed also will be culling comments from Twitter — which actually would have happened even if it weren’t BuzzFeed’s live-streaming partner — to get a temperature of of the electorate and pundits. “Twitter is a machine for news and jokes, and we want to harness those in the broadcast,” Smith said.
In addition, rather than traditional news anchors, BuzzFeed will have an ensemble cast hosting the night’s coverage: political reporter Adrian Carrasquillo, Tracy Clayton (of BuzzFeed’s “Another Round” podcast), Eugene Yang (of BuzzFeed’s “The Try Guys”) and U.K.-based reporter Hannah Jewell. Said Perlmutter, “The beauty of BuzzFeed is, it’s not, ‘Here’s our Anderson Cooper.’ It’s about the ensemble.”
On election night, BuzzFeed certainly would have wanted to feature the members of the “K-File” political investigative reporting unit, led by Andrew Kaczynski, which has broken some notable stories — but CNN poached the four-person team in early October. Smith acknowledged that their departure was a surprise, but said that comes with the territory: “We’re pretty happy with where we are right now.”
BuzzFeed and Twitter are banking on younger audiences tuning into the livestream to get a different slant from what they’ll see on CNN, Fox News or other networks, packaged in a new and engaging format. The video stream will be available via election.twitter.com, as well as on the Twitter app for Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Xbox One, and BuzzFeed will host the Twitter syndicated video player on its own sites and social accounts. As with Twitter’s other live broadcasts, including the NFL’s “Thursday Night Football,” the main video will be accompanied with a sidebar of related tweets siphoned in algorithmically.
Twitter is selling all the ads for BuzzFeed “Election Night Live,” providing a revenue split with BuzzFeed. There will be four ad breaks per hour, of varying length depending on how many spots Twitter sells. In addition, advertisers have the opportunity to sponsor original news clips produced by BuzzFeed News that they can also promote on Twitter.
Smith conceded that TV-style news coverage is relatively unfamiliar territory for BuzzFeed. “On the web, there are days you’re like, ‘I’m glad I don’t have to fill dead air,'” he said.
To make sure there’s a continuous funnel of stuff for the live broadcast, BuzzFeed News correspondents stationed around the world will provide remote reports. Those are set to include Ruby Cramer at Clinton headquarters, McKay Coppins at Trump headquarters, John Stanton at an event in Missouri with Trump supporters, Jen Ruggeirello at NYC’s Stonewall Inn, Talal Ansari in Dearborn, Mich., and “Try Guy” Keith Habersberger at a viewing party in L.A. BuzzFeed also is trying to book “celebrity guests” who will appear for interviews off the side of the main desk on the 13th floor.
In addition, regular segments throughout the evening will include “Emoji Eyes on Media,” with Charlie Warzel in New York analyzing TV network coverage; a social segment featuring Tanya Chen talking about what people are going insane over on Twitter; “Tasty Cheese Breaks” with election-inspired recipes every hour; live breaking-news dispatches from the BuzzFeed newsroom; and look-ins on audience viewing parties in N.Y. and L.A. The broadcast also will intersperse pre-recorded video segments, like bits from BuzzFeed’s “29 Most WTF Moments of the Election” such as Trump’s Tiny Hands and Johnson + Aleppo = ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ #Election2016.
Ultimately, Smith wants BuzzFeed’s “Election Night Live” to not only capture and analyze the social chatter of the evening, but to make viewers feel like they’re part of the conversation. “You used to get authority just because you were someone on TV,” he said. “Now you get that authority from an authentic connection to the audience.”
Pictured above: An artist’s rendering of the BuzzFeed “Election Night Live” to be installed at the company’s New York HQ.