How Turkey’s TRT World Wants to Win Over U.S. Online Video Viewers (EXCLUSIVE)

trt world
Courtesy of TRT World

American cable news networks are about to get some unlikely competition online. No, it’s not another news site pivoting to video. Instead, it’s Turkey’s public broadcaster TRT, which has quietly begun to target U.S. audiences with its English-language offshoot TRT World.

The network released apps for video streaming devices like Roku, Fire TV and Apple TV as well as smart speakers in the past couple of weeks. Soon, TRT World plans to unveil a whole new brand to target a post-cable-news audience with a global perspective — and an approach that goes beyond talking-head pundits and short social clips with large fonts.

“We’re seeing that people want more,” said Riyaad Minty, who leads digital strategy for TRT World. “There is so much noise out there at the moment, and we want to build something where people are able to pause, watch, and learn something new.”

TRT World officially launched a little more than two years ago with 24/7 English-language news programming. The network is being carried by some satellites, but doesn’t currently have any carriage agreements with U.S. pay-TV providers. Absent of those, TRT World broadcasts its live stream on YouTube, and occasionally also goes live on Facebook and Twitter’s Periscope.

Now, the broadcaster wants to find new audiences by targeting viewers ages 25 to 40 — who might own an Apple TV, for instance — with TV-length news shows as well as in-depth explainer videos. At the same time, TRT World is preparing a push for audiences under 30 with YouTuber-like content running anywhere from 7 to 13 minutes.

The broadcaster has been experimenting with more opinionated video series, and is looking to launch additional shows with known YouTubers in the coming weeks. That’s when TRT World also plans to unveil a whole new brand for targeting those younger audiences. The broadcaster also launched daily news briefings on Google Home and Alexa, and has been experimenting with Amazon’s smart speaker to launch a news quiz as well as an audio story with a branched narrative.

An overseas news brand that aims to find U.S. audiences with novel formats and a less stuffy brand: sounds familiar? That may not be an accident. It’s similar to the playbook Al Jazeera used when it launched AJ+ in 2014, with Minty serving as launch director. The Doha, Qatar-based broadcaster designed AJ+ as a millennial-focused channel with a heavy reliance on social media, and quickly became one of the biggest news publishers on Facebook.

In the following years, numerous online publishers bet on Facebook as the saviour of their business, with short social clips with big fonts quickly becoming ubiquitous.

Now, Minty wants to cut through that noise by going deeper. “We have a global network of some of the world’s best journalists working for us,” he said. “Bringing original, on-the ground reporting to people hungry for credible news is what we’re hoping to add to the media mix across platforms.”

TRT World’s expansion into the U.S. market is just the latest effort of a public or state-sponsored broadcaster to reinvent news on a global stage. As U.S. publishers struggle to monetize online news, it’s likely that others will follow. Public underwriting helps these broadcasters to stick to their mission, whereas venture-backed companies feel the pressure to deliver on revenue goals, leading to frequent changes in direction whenever Facebook changes its algorithm, or the next big trend appears online.

The flip side is that at least some of these new players are driven by national interests. The clearest example for this is RT, the state-linked Russian broadcaster that frequently peddled conspiracy theories during the 2016 election and was recently forced to register as a foreign agent in the United States.

Some critics have argued that TRT World is designed to advance Turkish interests as well, while others question the independence of a digital media brand that operates from a country with a questionable history of press freedom, and active internet censorship. And it didn’t exactly help TRT World’s image that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly used his speech at the opening ceremony of the new channel to blast foreign media, and accuse them of supporting the attempted military coup against his regime in 2016.

For his part, Minty defended TRT World’s independence by pointing out that the network is publicly funded, similar to the way the BBC is financed, and as such accountable to the Turkish people and not their government. “The thing I tell most people is simply to watch our screens and then decide for yourself,” he said. “Our content speaks for itself — and if there is something that doesn’t work, tell us about it.”