In August of last year, Arianna Huffington sat on a plush leather couch in a new television studio built on the fourth floor of The Huffington Post’s New York City offices.
“Welcome to a new kind of conversation!” Huffington said, ushering in HuffPost Live, the company’s attempt to disrupt the world of video news. Now six months in, HuffPost Live continues to chug along, producing 12 hours of content a day on topics as wide-ranging as celebrity gossip to turmoil in the Middle East, and everything in between. It is a proper TV news outfit, without the legacy constraints of TV news, though also without the massive daily viewership that TV news currently sees.
“I think that when it comes to TV in America–which is where the majority of video has been–it could use new sources, new voices, even a new format,” HuffPost Live host Ahmed Shihab-Eldin says. “We have been doing this for six months and we are trying to iterate and reinvent the format, and I think there is much more to come.”
New ventures attempt to solve problems, and the problem that Huffington and her team diagnosed was one of flow. In traditional TV news, information flows out to the viewer, but rarely, if ever, does information flow back.
“Part of the shift away from television is a shift away from the authoritative, top-down model,” Shihab-Eldin says. “In a conversation you have to listen, and on TV it is all output, there is very little responsiveness to the conversations around it.”
HuffPost Live encourages regular Huffington Post contributors and commenters to appear on the programs to talk about news of the day. It often gets chaotic, though it is hard to argue that it is more chaotic than, say, the “Octobox” that occasionally appears on traditional news outlets. The hosts, like Shihab-Eldin, serve as wranglers, anchors and interviewers. It is much more than just reading from a TelePompTer.
Shihab-Eldin in many respects epitomizes the ethos of HuffPost Live. Growing up he lived in California, Kuwait, Egypt and Austria, learning about language, culture and the way people view the world through a variety of lenses and worldviews.
“When I was younger I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I came to journalism by not really belonging to any one place,” he says. “I believe in trying to be factual and truthful, but because I had such a relative experience in all of these different places of what was the norm, what was convention, the perspective of how the world interacts, that to me has rally informed my trajectory in the business.”
Shihab-Eldin “broke out” as the host of the Al Jazeera English program “The Stream.” While AJE long struggled to gain traction here in the U.S., “The Stream” picked up critical acclaim from viewers who found it online or watched it abroad. As “The Stream” was finding its footing, there was revolution brewing in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East.
“As much as I loved the gravitas of those kinds of stories, there was a certain sense that it was only a one-hour show, and it was speaking to an audience that was already familiar with the types of editorial stories we were doing,” Shihab-Eldin says. “The appeal [to join] HuffPost Live was that The Huffington Post in a very short amount of time—seven years–managed to come from nothing and kind of disrupt the elite internet space.”
Now it is in the process of trying to disrupt the TV news space. While HuffPost Live is still web-centric, that may not be the case for long. In a recent interview with Beet.tv, Huffington Post Media Group CEO Jimmy Maymann says that the company may very well try and get the channel on traditional cable TV, and the subscription revenue that comes with it.
It may only be six months old, but it is clear that Huffington and her team are building a new type of TV news platform. Media tastemaker Mashable named Live its “biggest innovation in media in 2012.” The company also says that more than 6,500 people have appeared on the service since it launched, a stark contrast to the clubby world of TV news, which often features the same guests over and over. It is a new, young and different voice in a video news marketplace filled with familiar, older voices.
“It seemed way too ambitious given the amount of time that we had to build it,” Shihab-Eldin says. “It is a testament to the vision and the dedication, and being able to realize what we set out to do in such a short period of time.”
Watch a video tour of HuffPost Live starting at 4:50 in the episode of mediabistroTV’s “Cubes” below.
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