CNNgo Looks to Bring the Internet to Television

CNN’s Rajin Persaud, demonstrating the CNNgo app earlier this year.

ATLANTA—The concept is both simple and revolutionary: “What if we let online viewers program their own CNN newscast, focusing on the stories that matter most to them?” This offering could be supported by the millions of hours of legacy CNN archive footage and stories, all neatly accessed via related links that appear automatically based on keywords. And it would all be available for free… with a paid TV subscription.

The past year has seen a series of experimental “soft launches” of the IP-enabled video on demand platform, which was initially called CNNx and now goes by the more familiar CNNgo. (Sister network HBO pioneered in the space with its HBO Go app.) The platform, which includes most of the news network’s most popular shows, went live on many of CNN’s cable television service partners with more than 80 million households, on Sept. 28 and continues to gain viewership.

To distribute the thousands of shows per hour as digital files, CNNgo is using a new video delivery platform from Elemental Technologies called Elemental Delta, which, according to the company, helps content owners and distributors add time-shifted services, reduce distribution costs and more precisely manage and monetize content in multiscreen delivery deployments.

Rajin Persaud, vice president of CNN’s Next Generation Business & Product Strategy, discusses the challenges of launching and maintaining such a workflow-intensive initiative and why changing the online video viewing experience is more than just migrating the living room television experience online. It’s mostly about expanding the network’s reach while keeping existing distribution relationships intact, despite the emergence of competing OTT services (including recently announced offerings from HBO and CBS).

TV TECHNOLOGY:How long was CNNgo in development and what was the inspiration?

RAJIN PERSAUD: While the development of CNNgo is ongoing as we learn what features customers embrace, and as we ultimately define the best consumer experience, the initial version of CNNgo took approximately one year.

CNN’s motivation was the desire to create a converged experienced for our consumers that would bring together the CNN broadcast as well as the vast digital content and archives that CNN possesses. This convergence gives viewers the ability to watch what they want, when they want and to consume as little or as much of a particular story as their interest allows.

TVT:The platform soft launched in the spring. How many people are using the service today?

PERSAUD: While it’s still early days for the product, we are seeing good growth in unique users as well as time spent using CNNgo. August 2014 broke all previous records for CNN consumption, with 47 minutes on the iPad and 104 minutes on the desktop versions of CNNgo.

TVT:You talk about “bringing the Internet to television,” as opposed to the other way around. Explain what you mean.

PERSAUD: This really means two things. The Internet and on-demand services are conditioning the average consumer to have an amazing amount of choice and the ability to consume content at their own discretion. Broadcast television tends to be the opposite of that. When you turn on your television and tune to a particular channel, you have to watch whatever is on air at the time you tune in. With CNNgo, it’s different. We are embracing the notion of choice by allowing the consumer to watch those stories they care about in a discrete way.

In addition, the consumer no longer has to leave the television viewing experience and pick up another device to get more details or get the “back story” on what they are currently watching. We curate and provide additional content in real time for every story or show.

CNNgo features most of the news network’s most popular shows.TVT:From a technical perspective, how challenging was this and what specific technologies are involved?

PERSAUD: CNNgo represents a model of innovation for CNN that will be emulated across our company. This project was undertaken at a time when our technology teams were already fully allocated and we did not have a clear sense of whether this was technically feasible, as it had never been done before by anyone else within CNN or any other company.

One of the more difficult challenges we solved was reflecting the dynamic and live nature of television news broadcast in real time on the CNNgo consumer product and syncing that with related content. This piece required a remarkable amount of invention and ingenuity by our technical teams. The delivery of this product required technical input and work from almost every technology team at CNN, from broadcast master control systems all the way to digital ad serving and everything in between.

TVT:CNN has many relationships with cable MSOs and telcos across the country that are fighting “cord-cutters” and those who might want to pay à la carte for programming. How are you ensuring that a product like CNNgo does not strain those relationships?

PERSAUD: CNNgo will not strain the relationships between CNN and our partners because a cable or satellite subscription is required to use the product. We are, in fact, working with our cable and satellite partners to deliver CNNgo on a set-top box in the future.

TVT:Is CNNgo a model for alternate ways to view programming from Turner or other program distributors? Is there a roadmap at Turner to deliver more interactive programming of this type?

PERSAUD: CNNgo is a model of innovation for the news industry as a whole. Something like this has never been done before by any other news organization anywhere. Our cable and satellite partners are fully embracing what we’ve delivered with CNNgo, and it adds to their consumer value proposition. Bringing this capability to the set-top box will be the capstone.

While it is too early to share product roadmaps of the other brands at Turner, as an organization, we share success stories with each other.