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HuffPo Slips Into the Stream

The Huffington Post Streaming Network takes aim at live news. Its challenge: to engage and retain fickle viewers and advertisers

Illustration: GlueKit; Huffington Photo: Nadine Rupp/Getty Images

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“We’re not going to become a cable network,” declared Huffington Post editor Roy Sekoff, explaining the rollout last week of The Huffington Post Streaming Network.

Yet questions on what exactly it is going to be will continue to dog the network until its planned early summer launch.

For 12 hours a day and five days a week, HuffPo will stream live and archived video ranging from breaking news to celebrity interviews to debates between HuffPo writers and commenters.

Already heavily scrutinized is HuffPo’s eschewing of a set programming schedule. Sekoff likened it to mirroring the Internet’s serendipitous experience, which would be fine if Internet users weren’t so much like hummingbirds flitting from one site to the next. Advertisers will not be guaranteed TV-level eyeballs at any given time for the simple reason that the network won’t be able to sustain them.

While Fox News, CNN and CBS News have been streaming live news in one form or another for years, none has become a veritable success. HuffPo conceivably could carve away marketshare and stake itself as the go-to online news broadcaster for many consumers, echoing the online news publisher’s original ascent.

That a leadership vacancy exists doesn’t mean, however, that HuffPo will be able to fill it. Paul Slavin, svp and gm of Everyday Health Studios and former ABC News svp who oversaw the company’s digital network ABC News Now, said while ABC News lowering its pay wall for a breaking news story would sometimes result in up to 10 million viewers, HuffPo’s “challenge is going to be day-to-day. They’ll be able to get people to watch when there’s big news like a hurricane, but they need to train people to come regularly.”

HuffPo will also need to attract advertisers to sponsor the network on a regular basis. The site is seeking five or six founding sponsors. (Select advertisers and agencies received the earliest previews around the time of last month’s Consumer Electronics Show.) The network will use a premium sponsorship model, featuring “a handful of partners” sharing a voice across online, mobile and tablet, said Janet Balis, svp and head of sales strategy, marketing and partnerships at AOL Advertising. Advertising opportunities include preroll ads and segment sponsorships.

HuffPo doesn’t appear to be too concerned about competing for TV advertising dollars. Balis said she doesn’t think about it in those terms and pointed to digital’s interactive capabilities as a key differentiator. Advertisers, said Sekoff, could sponsor a tweet that would appear atop the network’s social feed à la Twitter’s Promoted Tweets.

Steve Minichini, president of interactive marketing at TargetCast, had an early look at the network and said the offering will impress marketers, provided that HuffPo doesn’t bombard viewers with ads. “Online video’s done really well with advertisers for brand recall and brand affinity because the commercial load has been light,” he said.

“I am unclear…how HuffPo is going to roll out its video ad sponsorships,” Minichini added. “But if they keep the load light, they have enough inventory to make a decent amount of revenue and still have a different, meaningful consumer connection to their marketers.”

Mary Shirley, vp of digital media activation at Horizon Media, hasn’t seen the network yet but said a key consideration for her is the context in which an ad is shown. Given the network’s seat-of-the-pants programming, an airline could sponsor a segment on holiday travel only to see HuffPo cut to a breaking story about a plane crash. Shirley assumed there will be safeguards in place to avoid that pratfall.

“It has to be for advertisers who are already comfortable in news in general,” she said.

Beyond advertisers, it will be interesting to see how HuffPo's potential live-news-on-the-Web competitors react, given that they've got plenty of time to formulate a strategy. One thing to watch for: will Fox News and MSNBC follow CNN's lead, and start streaming their cable networks live online -- albeit only to paying cable subscribers, as CNN does.