What’s the future of video news on social media? If ABC News’ initial success on the Facebook Watch video platform with its daily “On Location” show is an indication, it’s a diet heavy on short bursts of shocking footage, on-screen graphics and first-person dispatches.
ABC News was among the first partners for Facebook-funded news shows announced last summer. In the six months since debuting in August, ABC News’ “On Location” — billed as “bringing you on-the-ground reporting from around the world on the day’s top and most interesting stories” — has led the pack in video views and quantity of episodes out of the rest of the news programming slate greenlit by Facebook.
The show has a weekly average of 4.3 million views, with about 432,000 followers for the “On Location” show page. About 20% of the “On Location” episodes published to date (37 of 185) have more than 1 million views each. (Note that Facebook tabulates a “view” anytime a video is watched for at least three seconds.)
“On Location” has done a good job of delivering “the top five most visual stories of the day,” said Shelley Venus, video lead on Facebook’s news partnerships team and former head of video for HuffPost. “It captures the viewers’ attention in News Feed,” she said, adding that the show is “definitely outperforming” other news programming on Facebook.
The news outlet’s “On Location” is garnering views by compiling attention-grabbing video footage and leading with the most eye-popping bits. Many of the segments have click-inducing headlines. Some examples: “Shootout in grocery store parking lot,” “Fiery crash traps teen,” “Child in car seat falls out of car,” “Prisoner takes librarian hostage,” “Woman abandons 2-year-old on stranger’s doorstep,” “Man with no pants falls through Waffle House ceiling” and “Man shoves random passerby in front of truck.” The “On Location” videos also feature surging, dramatic musical flourishes and fast cuts between the stories.
Needless to say, it’s not the traditional TV nightly newscast formula.
Katie Nelson, executive producer of news content for ABC News who oversees the “On Location,” acknowledged that the team has learned that the best-performing episodes feature a “specific kind of visual.”
“There’s lots of motion, and it’s really raw: something someone captured on a phone or a police-cam footage,” she said. “The opening scene – the first three seconds – is incredibly important.”
The “On Location” episodes are presented in vertical-video format, designed for viewing on smartphones, with a new 5-7 minute segment released seven days per week. ABC News has about a dozen staff dedicated to the show, but the series “really leverages the entire ABC News organization,” Nelson said. “The idea was to knock down barriers… We know we need to do a better job of bringing regular viewers closer to the story. We appreciate the tradition of the anchor desk but we wanted to figure out new ways to take people inside the news.”
Here’s the most-viewed episode of “On Location” so far — “Police officer punches teen,” with 5.8 million views:
Along with the tabloid-y subjects featured in ABC News “On Location,” the show also showcases big gets landed by the news organization. Those include Robin Roberts’ interview Michelle Obama last fall and George Stephanopoulos’ sit-down with ex-Trump lawyer Michael Cohen in December.
ABC News also is Facebook’s go-to partner for live breaking news. The 24-hour ABC News Live is available on Facebook, Hulu, Roku’s free Roku Channel, and ABC News’ own site and apps. “It’s the biggest bet we’re making in digital to future-proof the brand,” as linear viewing decreases, Nelson said.
“On Location” and ABC News Live are the two biggest digital initiatives for the year, according to Nelson. “Our goal for our digital coverage overall is to be faster, with more breaking news, and to present more raw footage,” she said.
Facebook’s Venus said that when the social-media company launched the initiative to fund news programming, “we didn’t know what would work well.” As ABC News’ “On Location” has shown, a key learning has been that “having gripping opening segments are really important.”
Facebook has funded most news partners, which also include CNN, Fox News Channel, BuzzFeed and Univision, through one year. “We’re going to double down on things that are doing well” while cutting some others, Venus said. She declined to say which shows might be getting the axe. Facebook plans to expand beyond the U.S. in 2019 to invest in international news programming, she added.
“On Location” and other Facebook-funded shows on Facebook Watch include advertising, all of which is sold by Facebook with a portion of revenue shared with partners. The ads run as preroll or midroll spots, served up based an individual’s behavior on the platform (for example, if someone watches three straight videos, they might not see an ad in each one).
As for whether Facebook Watch’s news initiative has been profitable, Venus said it’s “still pretty early in our ad-break journey.”
“Part of the reason we did this funding [for news video programming] was to build a bridge for partners to a healthy ecosystem of advertising,” Venus said.