There may be a new way to do TV news. One that doesn't involve tuning out for human interest stories and morning-show anchors playing with baby animals. One that allows viewers to pick out exactly which stories they hear and which they skip. Not to mention one that could diminish the drama of the Matt Lauers and the Katie Courics of the world negotiating contracts and duking it out for anchor spots.
At least, that's what one company is hoping. A startup named Guide is working on a way to transform nearly any online article into a video news piece. The goal is to let viewers curate their own personalized newscasts from the news sites and blogs they already read. The service's computerized characters read the stories, interspersing them with photos, videos, and infographics already included with the stories. Completing the TV-newscast feel, online comments run along the bottom of the screen in a ticker, and commercials will run between segments, as in any TV newscast.
The idea is not far removed from services like Google Reader or Flipboard, which let readers assemble the news they want to read on one page. But the format is radically new, confronting Guide with the elemental question that faces any company rolling out an entirely new product: whether or not there is sufficient demand. If the answer is yes, it could fundamentally change how online journalists do their work—and how the audience consumes their content.
Freddie Laker, the company's founder, believes that consumers will buy wholeheartedly into the idea of text-to-video news. Laker says he had the idea for Guide at the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show.
"That year, everything was about smart TVs. But I remember looking at the smart TVs and thinking to myself, 'This is a really terrible user experience right now,' " says Laker, referring to television sets that can connect to the Internet. Though it's still a relatively new technology, Laker became convinced that Web-enabled television was the wave of the future, and he set out to be one of the first people to ride that wave.
"I started thinking about things that are underserved in the TV world, and one of those was online news consumption," he says. "When I started thinking about reading news on TV, [that experience] was broken. There's just so many other devices where it's better to read. I started thinking, what's going to drive the TV world? And it's this very simple insight that people want TV experiences on their TV."
The point, he says, is not to get people to stop reading; that is something that news consumers will always want. Instead, Guide wants to provide people with the ability to have the hands-free, semi-engaged experience that they do with conventional television news: watching it at the gym or while cooking supper.
While Guide aspires to a TV-like experience, it has some key differences. For example, customers can choose a non-human "avatar" to read the news—a puppy, an anime character, or a purple-haired punk rocker could sit in the virtual anchor chair. Avatars could be another chief source of revenue for Guide, with customers paying a small fee to purchase celebrities or new animals to read them the news. This is also another opportunity for advertising—a film company releasing a new movie may issue an avatar in the form of a character from that movie. Famous bloggers may also want to issue premium content and create their own avatars to deliver it—customers may pay more to see Perez Hilton or Thomas Friedman deliver their articles, says Laker.
Some of the differences between Guide and broadcast news, however, are unintentional. One hurdle the company faces is the pesky problem of how to make the avatars seem lifelike. Avatars in demo videos currently up on the Guide website feature robotic delivery and imperfect lip-syncing. However, Laker says that even since making the demo videos, there have been "huge breakthroughs in the quality of the avatar technology," and that the company may eventually feature human readings of some stories.
He adds that the visual side is not really the toughest part of the job. Rather, it's finding an efficient way to understand and display every article. The hope is that any site can throw an article at Guide, and the service will know where and when to put up the accompanying charts, photos, and videos.
"What we really consider ourselves to be and we aspire to be the best in the world at is understanding content, analyzing and recognizing different types of content, and then adding enough understanding of it to display it in the most intelligent way possible," Laker says.
Then again, to talk to Laker for even a few minutes is to understand that thinks on a grand, even grandiose, scale. He calls himself a "diehard futurist" and an avid science fiction fan. He peppers the conversation with references to his favorite films and books, and has even named his blog takemetoyourleader.com. Indeed, even as he discusses the limitations of his current product, he is also concerned with the distant places it could go in the future.
"Our vision is that someday in the next couple of years, Guide is the beginning product that you'll basically be able to walk up and say, 'Good morning, Guide, show me the best in tech news, read me my five most important emails, and show me the weather,' " he says. "It recognizes me, presents my news back to me dynamically, and does that as almost this living entity."
Whether customers are excited for such unheard-of technology may be a shaky proposition. Then again, that question may also be immaterial. Steve Jobs was famous for his philosophy that Apple would tell consumers what to like, rather than asking them. Likewise, news readers may not say they want their New York Times articles read aloud by a talking anime character, but that doesn't mean they won't buy it. The iPad was met with skepticism, after all, but it soon became ubiquitous and sparked a tablet war between computer manufacturers.
Either way, Laker knows all too well that being first doesn't equal being successful. He is the son of British airline entrepreneur Freddie Laker, a pioneer in the field of low-cost air travel. His Skytrain airline company faced regulatory and financial difficulties—not to mention some muscling from bigger airlines—that led to its 1982 bankruptcy, only five years after it began operation, but it is recognized as a forerunner to successful airlines like Ryanair and Southwest Airlines.
"I would hate to be the guy who broke in a whole new industry," says Guide's creator. "Sometimes they say the first guy rarely succeeds. I would like to make sure I don't replicate that."
If text-to-video news were to become a reality as common as tablets or low-cost airways, experts say it could have profound implications for how news is presented and consumed.
"Internet content is always going to be buyer beware," says Dan Birman, a broadcast news expert and professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. "If we call that news, even if we have an android-looking person reading the news to us, it starts to take on an air of acceptability."
For example, if a Guide user follows both TMZ and the Financial Times, that could mean juxtaposing stories from both sources in one newscast. When a news anchor reads these new stories in succession, both a gossipy Lindsay Lohan story and an analysis of Ben Bernanke's interest rate policy could take on equal weight and, perhaps more importantly, equal integrity. And though Guide will explicitly show on-screen the sources of any given story, the person on the elliptical machine at the gym may not notice.
"If you think about a visual newscast, there are these wonderful visual cues that take you from one content to another," says Stephen Masiclat, director of New Media Management at Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications. Over the shoulder graphics or even simple camera angle shifts or musical interludes can signal shifts between segments. If Guide can't get those nuances right, it could flatten some articles.
"It seems to me that's the single biggest problem facing this startup, is that everything is going to be the same," he says. "And that sameness is to the detriment of the content."
He also adds that not getting the avatars' voices right could work against some articles. If the voice can't capture sarcasm, that could sap the life out of stories from cheeky sites like Jezebel or The Awl.
If the technology is perfectable—and that's a big if—widespread adoption of text-to-video technology could mean yet another forced evolution for online journalists.
Looking at adaptation to the iPad provides an example. Writers have not been forced to adapt how they write for tablets, but journalism organizations have adapted how they present content: Quartz, the Atlantic's new business site, was designed specifically with mobile and tablet platforms in mind, and Gawker's recent redesign rendered it more tablet-friendly.
It's not a large step from wondering about tablet optimization to video optimization. In a world where sites like Guide were suddenly the norm, editors may for example start pressuring reporters to keep stories under 1,000 words, Guide's current maximum story length, to take advantage of the extra traffic. Writers may also feel compelled to write in the more brief, simple style required for broadcast writing than for online and print journalism.
Considering these concerns right now, before one small startup even unveils its product, may seem premature. Technology concerns aside, the company also faces the question of whether smart TV will catch on in a big way. Growth in smart TV consumption has been flat in North America thus far—a late-2012 from market research firm NPD showed that the continent had the lowest connected TV reach in the entire world, at 20 percent.
However, Laker firmly believes in the growth of smart TV. He adds that the app will be available in iTunes and Android Play stores in May; and partnerships with well-known news outlets mean mainstream adoption is only a matter of time.
"There's this promise we've been shown in movies like Minority Report and Total Recall, and so on, where the TV is effectively alive, that it's a artificial intelligence, you interact with it via speaking," he says. "That is going to happen. And I've never had anyone argue with me that that's not in the roadmap. Some people think it's 10 years out, some people think it's three years out. I think we're in the beginning of creating that process for people."