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The Beast That Ate the News Cycle

How online video is reshaping the political landscape.

12:30 PM, Oct 18, 2011 • By OWEN BRENNAN
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Unless you were unconscious last week – or perhaps a Yankees, Phillies or Red Sox fan in October isolation – you’ve likely seen the extraordinary online video of a horned beast attacking a mountain biker in South Africa. It’s captivating because of the random violence and the fact that the biker only suffered a concussion.


More than 10 million people have already watched on YouTube (to put that number in context, the No. 1 program on cable news, The O’Reilly Factor, was seen in about 3.4 million households on last Monday).

I first saw the biker-beast footage on Good Morning America, and then I saw it on cable news as well as multiple ESPN programs. It would be easy to write the video off with a chuckle and a reminder to consider your place on the food chain while biking in Africa. But more important, it reveals a new force in media – and one that will shape 2012 and beyond.

Just three decades ago, network news reigned and big city papers set the news agenda.  The veteran reporter John Stossel tells an interesting story about the most powerful of them all – The New York Times: “I saw this when I first went to Channel 2 (WCBS TV) and did local reporting. The assignment editor would just cut stuff out of the Times and say, ‘Here, go do that.’”

Compelling online video now has the potential for that same impact. 

The New York Times still drives much of the news cycle – especially at legacy media like the CBS, ABC, and NBC. But its power has been challenged. A red-siren headline on the Drudge Report routinely shapes talk radio and cable news.  

Similarly, our hapless mountain biker really reveals the ability of online video to hit the new scycle like an enraged antelope. Instead of clipping an article out of The New York Times or sending around a link to the big story, executive producers and assignment editors can now click on a video and say, “Here, go do that.”

The reason for the power of online video is simple. In the world of broadcast journalism, many live by the rule, “Show the best video first.” This means easy-to-access footage of some crazed beast in an exotic location knocking over a wayward biker is going to find a place on countless programs both national and local.

This is an important lesson as 2012 candidates, Tea Party people, think tanks and conservative media look toward November of next year. As the numbers reveal, online video has just become a mainstream medium and it is going to be a powerful weapon in this election cycle.

In August, the most recent month that numbers are available from comScore, 180 million Internet users in the United States watched online video (for comparison, Nielsen tracks what people watch on television in roughly 115 million television households). More than 85 percent of the total U.S. Internet audience viewed online video. Advertisers are tapping into the power of online video and showed American viewers 5.6 billion online video ads in August.

So, the question for 2012 is, “Will the organizations, activists and candidates who want to defeat Obama be able to harness the power of online video to drive the news cycle and shape the debate?”

It’s an important question to answer, because the GOP got killed by Obama’s online video operation in 2008. Even though YouTube was only a couple of years old during that election cycle, “Obama stole the show” with online video, according to US News and World Report.

·      Obama’s YouTube channel had 115,000 subscribers and his supporters engaged with the campaign by uploading more than 1,800 YouTube videos .

·      McCain’s YouTube Channel had 28,000 subscribers. And his supporters engaged with the campaign by uploading 330 videos.

·      In total, Obama’s channel had more than 97 million video views, while the McCain channel only had 25 million video views.

Knowing the power of online video, Obama launched the White House’s first YouTube channel, which has had its uploaded videos viewed more than 62 million times. Obama’s personal channel has more than 165 million views.

Across town, the RNC created a channel that’s had 4 million views. Ron Paul deserves credit for reaching more than 31 million people on his YouTube channels. And leave it to an actual businessman, Herman Cain, to have more views of his videos than the guy who has been running since 2006, the year in which Mitt Romney’s YouTube channel was created. Cain clocks in at 1.9 million views since his channel was created in 2010. Romney has 1.6 million in five years.

Online video will be driving the news cycle in the run up to the November 2012. Next year, though, the tens of millions of views won’t be of a biker getting mauled in South Africa, a double rainbow (all the way), and epic wildlife battles. Instead, the  mainstream media will broadcast the best videos being produced about the battle on the campaign trail. The side that has the most creative, compelling videos that are on message will have the best chance of controlling the news cycle, framing the debate, and winning the White House.

Owen Brennan, a former speechwriter for Mayor Giuliani and the FDNY and a former producer for Bill O’Reilly, is now a writer and producer of online video in Los Angeles. He can be reached at OWBrennan@gmail.com.

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