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CNN Sets for News Webolution

This year’s News Technology Summit, hosted by Broadcasting & Cable and TV Technology, will kick off Oct. 7 in Atlanta with an opening keynote by Alex Wellen, chief product officer at CNN. Wellen, who has been with the company for over nine years and was named CNN’s fi rst CPO last fall as part of an aggressive expansion of its digital efforts, oversees product development for offerings such as CNNgo, which is an ambitious effort to reinvent the TV news experience. Wellen also provides the strategic vision for CNN’s efforts on mobile, Web, data, video, TV and emerging platforms. Wellen spoke to Next TV contributing editor George Winslow prior to the summit about how he sees the digital news landscape, the evolving TV experience and the place mobile has in that realm. An edited transcript follows.

NTV:What will you be talking about in your keynote at this week’s News Technology Summit?

Alex Wellen: The title of the speech is “Re-imagining the TV News Experience” and I will talk about the evolution of the CNNgo product and how it’s performing and where we are going with it.

In many ways, CNNgo is about the future state of CNN TV. The charge was to build a product that could contextualize every single TV segment in real time, 24/7.

Right now, we are on tablets, smartphones, the Web and television and we are going to expand that by the end of the year to millions of set-top boxes as well.

If you look back at the history of TV Everywhere, what we call CNNgo was initially about giving control to users and enabling them to watch this particular stream exactly as it appeared on a TV anywhere and whenever they wanted on any device including their desktop at work.

What you see with CNNgo is an evolution of that control. It enables the individual to drill down to the segments that are most important to them personally and then get as much or as little context around that story as they desire.

So if we know in the digital newsroom that we have 10 stories and three videos and four photo galleries on the Pope and we are covering the Pope right now on television, we can fuse these two things together and create an experience that is elegant and unitary.

NTV:I presume a lot of those capabilities are based on really good metadata on a very granular level about the content?

AW: You’ve hit my favorite topic. Understanding the metadata around all of our segments in real time and quickly being able to associate what is happening on TV with what is happening in digital is quite a profound challenge and an exciting one that we embraced.

Marrying those together is a combination of hand curation and algorithms. We have individuals in every single control room across the country who are covering our newscast because we don’t know when news will break.

NTV:How did you and your teams come up with the approach you’ve taken with CNNgo to personalize the content by providing the contextualization you’ve been taking about?

AW: It took many iterations and a lot of thought.

We invest deeply in TV linear broadcast and there are thousands of people around this company enabling us to [create] that live stream. We wanted to start with the understanding of that content because in the past, it kind of fell off a cliff. It just disappeared into the archive or library.

So the first step was to understand what we are broadcasting 24/7. Once you atomize and understand the components of the broadcast, then you can reassemble them as needed. You can make a personal stream, you can make a political stream, you can jump around to the content that interests you the most—the trending content and so forth.

But unless you understand those core components, you are kind of stuck.

NTV:There is a lot of talk about mobile first in terms of developing digital production and obviously, mobile is very important in the news arena. How do you see CNNgo, which seems designed to change both the mobile and the TV experience, in light of that?

AW: TV brings a lot of things to a lot of different people and it means a lot of different things to them. People watch us on TV and on mobile devices, so it was important to us to bring that full functionality across all devices. You see that with the iPad execution of CNNgo.

On a mobile device, the time spent might be shorter and your product needs to be that much more precise. It needs to get the consumer where they need to be as quickly as possible.

So this idea of offering up every segment in the last 10 minutes and alerting them to every segment that is coming up in the next 10 minutes is really what the consumer wants. They want to know how to get to the biggest stories as quickly as possible and they want them to be timely.

NTV:What are some of newer consumer trends in electronic devices and digital usage you’re keeping an eye on?

AW: One thing is the Internet of Things.

As people go through the day and we understand them better it will be important for CNN to contextualize their life. And so in certain ways it will be about things that they explicitly ask for. In other ways, it will be about things that are implied and finally it will be content that we will handcraft and deliver to them, whether that is on a watch or a piece of clothing.

So, I’m really interested in making CNN personal. I think the question that we toy with is, ‘What does a more personal CNN look like?’ If you can answer that overarching question you are on your way to future- proofing the business.

CNN Digital just had its 20th anniversary. How would you describe its importance to the overall news operation?

In many ways we’re re-architecting CNN for the future. When you talk about CNNgo I’m not sure if it is clearly a TV or digital product. It is somewhere in-between.

Digital in and of itself is a very successful business for us. For the last four months we have been No. 1 in video starts, video uniques and video time spent. As we look at digital, it is a contributor to the overall business as a business in itself. But at same time it is a bridge to the future. We feel a great level of responsibility to help create the products that ladder up to a business model that will ultimately be the way that people get CNN in the future.

One of the areas that is interesting to me is that CNN still needs to be a destination. There are times when you need to tune into CNN, whether it is on the website or on TV. One of the things I’ll be talking about at the News Summit is the importance of meeting consumers where they are. And that means being on all of these other device because no matter how good we make our product, no one is going to stop someone from consuming CNN on Apple TV or Facebook, except us by not being there. So we need to be there and we are parallel pathing an overall strategy of being a destination both on and off our platforms.

As you move into 2016, how has the role of digital changed from the last presidential election in 2012?

CNN Politics is on a tear right now. It is No. 1 competitively speaking because there is so much interest around the election.

We have made very deep investments in editorial and production and technology and standing up a really world class site. As we look at these big events—the primaries, the conventions, election night—I think we are going to spend a lot of energy trying to connect to people with a very personal experience. That personal experience can come in terms of data and storytelling in candidates and in our TV coverage.

It will be important to broadcast events in real time and have many of them. There will also be an opportunity to stream lots of stump speeches and a lot of these key events and make sure that through CNNgo, we can make them available every single day as part of the pay-TV subscription.

Part of it is the education [to make people aware that the product is there]. There are more than 86 million homes that can get this service without paying any extra money as part of what they already get for their pay-TV subscription. And part of it is creating a world-class product that can keep them close to the election in real time.

For the [September 16] Republican debate, we had 23 million households viewing on TV and on digital we broke all kinds of records by giving people a limited preview [so that CNNgo was available to everyone, not just homes with pay-TV subscriptions]. Everyone was allowed to watch the debates and we reminded them that this is something you can do as part of your pay-TV subscription.

By making it available in limited preview we had over 900,000 concurrent streams at one point. That is a remarkable number—by far a record for debates.

In addition, there were 4.5 million live stream starts, which was also a record.

What’s interesting to me is when those numbers start to converge. When the number of concurrent streams is approaching 1 million and you do 4 million-5 million video starts, that means people stayed with it for a long time and it was a pristine signal that worked across every device. It means people weren’t concerned with the production and that everything worked.

You mentioned that you just made some major improvements to CNNgo. What are a few highlights?

There are four things that I would identify as really meaningful changes to the experience.

One is just overall user interface. The video is more than twice the size it was before, so it is very front-and-center and the user interface is quite beautiful.

Two is that we have added the ability to kind of channel surf, so we have not only CNN and HLN in CNNgo, we have added CNN International. For many people who never had access to CNN International because it was only available to 17 million homes, it is now available to more than 86 million homes on CNNgo.

The third is that we added to our deep on-demand content library. We are going out with about 100 hours of original programming so that adds a lot of original programming that didn’t exist two years ago before Jeff Zucker [became president of CNN Worldwide].

The fourth would really be about ad execution. We are doing some really deep meaningful native executions. We are very clear where there is an advertisement but we are letting advertisers tell stories.

So Lexus for example, which renewed with us, has the ability not only to run a mid-roll but have all the related content. The same storytelling techniques we had for our CNN editorial we are giving to Lexus so they can tell the story about a new car or a new piece of technology.

Another thing to note—and this isn’t a fifth area but something that is across all of it—is that we’re rolling CNNgo to one platform after another.

Right now we are on iPads and the Web. We are on Apple TV and will be on Roku and will be on set-top boxes. So now that we’ve gotten the product right, we are really rolling it out to all these platforms.