Overdosing on HuffPost Live

Streaming network innovates, though lacks gravitas

On Monday, at 10 a.m. EST, a stopwatch timer finally ticked to zero and Arianna Huffington's trademarked accent broke the silence from a burgundy-colored leather couch to launch a next-level experiment that in the digital media world is nothing short of unprecedented. Joined in the wood-paneled living room set by Huffington Post founding editor Roy Sekoff, HuffPost Live was under way, ready to inundate viewers with an avalanche of daily video content—12 hours per day, to be exact.

In case you were wondering, that's a whole lot of live Web video time to fill each day. Thus, a few big questions are hanging over Arianna and company, such as, "Is this a good idea?" and "Does HuffPost Live even work?" To get a sense, I watched for the better part of three straight days.

To watch HuffPost Live is to take a manic journey straight into the belly of the HuffPo beast. In many ways, the live video site is like a frenetic tour of the Huffington Post at any given moment. Frequent segments like "Hot on HuffPost (Insert section vertical)" dissect the content on a particular vertical like Tech, Politics and even the eye-glazing front page. Much like the site, HuffPost Live tries to cram material from the 50-plus sections of the site into a small space, which results in abrupt segment transitions from Instagram to deportation, to a meditation on "the ascent of jerks." Transitions are often orchestrated with a wide shot of the studio and some buzzy Weather Channel-esque elevator music as hosts and producers scurry with Macbooks to make way for the next segment.

The programming setup is no doubt designed to evoke a user's Internet experience, in which a platform agnostic and socially driven approach to the Web results in navigation from frivolous videos and GIFS to more serious content like news on Afghanistan. Yet, at least initially, the approach as it is employed by HuffPost Live doesn't work as seamlessly as Internet browsing, and it will be difficult for the network to rely on any sort of appointment viewing on the Web—since there really is no HuffPost schedule. Though, as The New York Times' Brian Stelter notes, HuffPost Live expects much of the live segments to be viewed later on demand.

A Forbes review of the network's first day called the experiment "courageous, flawed and promising," and it is hard to condemn the substantial efforts of the Huffington Post for aiming to reinvent a broadcast format for the digital age. Yet, HuffPost Live, which Sekoff notes aims to "talk with you, not at you" feels at times overly ambitious and quite possibly too crowded.

Michael Humphrey's aforementioned Forbes article notes that while watching CNN's live stream for comparison, he found "CNN looked elitist with its well-suited guests, its complete lack of real social integration, its long commercial breaks." While CNN has had no shortage of programming woes, there is still much to be said in terms of the value of the network's expert guests and panelists, no matter how they choose to dress themselves. After all, is it really elitist to argue the news should be placed in the hands of credentialed professionals?

Then again, maybe HuffPost Live isn't necessarily news in the way we've come to understand it, but instead a reimagining of the Today show conducted via Google Hangout and produced by a team of ambitious and fresh-faced college grads. And maybe that is just what journalism needs these days. But as a recent college grad myself, I doubt it.

After watching three days of HuffPost Live's on-air hosts deftly navigate technical difficulties and a new format, there is no doubt the streaming network has unearthed some competent new media personalities. Yet, many of the day's segments involve these hosts interviewing HuffPost editors as they present insipid reviews of content currently on the site. Understandably the network has a lot of hours to fill, but the segments come across as self-indulgent and redundant. 

Beyond the content itself, HuffPost Live's other big distinguishing factor is its full-armed embrace of live social media interaction. And surely, there will be many that laud The Huffington Post for creating a democratic broadcast platform where users can interject their voices through direct video participation or through a companion tweet/comment stream. But as the network ages and evolves, HuffPo would do well to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of group participation for the sake of group participation.

For example, examining the comments streamed over the past three days yielded some wonderful insights on topics like race, identity, religion and even the Federal Reserve, but the comments were largely lost in a torrent of trollish babble both on and way off topic. Equally concerning were flat segments like "Defend Your Comment," where segment host Dr. Marc Lamont Hill even noted that once bold and incendiary commenters were far less confrontational on camera.

Going forward, the future of HuffPost Live is as uncertain as The Huffington Post was after its launch in May 2005. Speculative media types wondered back then how Huffington would integrate a number of disparate voices into something cohesive and substantive. Seven years and a Pulitzer Prize later, it is clear Huffington and company were up to the extremely ambitious challenge. The launch of HuffPost Live is yet another ambitious and courageous step in the media realm for this group. Three days in, there is certainly promise (their politics segments are particularly engaging and professional), but a great deal of refining is necessary to ensure that lightning strikes twice for the Huffington media empire.