A few weeks ago, I was on Snapchat tapping and swiping from a food program to a Vice news report to a Cosmo quiz, when I realized: Snap—the $25 billion company behind the app—has built the remote control of the internet age.
In this sense, Snapchat isn’t just a great way to shoot and share selfies, as it's usually described. It’s also the first truly natively designed mobile video player, too. In fact, Snap designs everything from the UI to its own content to make sure that watching it is as mindless as possible.
With the smartphone touchscreen, Snap has built a remote control that beams full-screen video right into my eyeballs. If I don’t like something, I just tap—skipping ahead through the boring parts of a video—or I flick my way to something new. There’s a beautifully architected laziness to the UI that makes the scrolling of Twitter or Facebook feel like a massive effort (even though, Discover does let you scroll at times, too). And there’s no UI filigree getting in your way. You don't have to tap an icon or rotate your screen to zoom in. It's full-bleed video. Just. Perfect. Dumb. Video.
And it’s taken a lot of cleverness to make this gloriously mindlessly watchable video experience happen. Internally, Snap carefully considers how the app’s UI and content blend, using each to inform and reinforce the other. In fact, it relies on partners to custom product content just for Snapchat to make it work. And companies like NBC are already on board with Snapchat-only versions of SNL and The Voice.
In 1948, around when TV was first introduced, the experience was just three antenna network channels you’d change by twisting a dial on the television. Cable technology came around as early as the '50s, with the promise of carrying more channels to more remote parts of the country. But it wasn’t until the 1980s, when the FCC unshackled a series of content restrictions, that $15 billion was invested in wiring the country with cable lines. These analog channels introduced the whole concept of channel surfing, and we were addicted. By the late '90s, we’d have 171 national video networks, each feeding us content that we could consume with a flick. Yet the next decade of digital TV, DVRs, and streaming would actually slow down the experience of watching TV to a crawl.
Snapchat is "what TV used to be for a new audience," says Paul Greenberg, Executive Vice President & General Manager of 45th & Dean, a new A+E Networks short-form digital content studio. "It does have interactivity, but it does bring a nice, almost lean-back experience to the phone, which is a little oxymoronic but makes perfect sense."
It’s no wonder that when talking to Snap, its creatives frequently reference Snapchat’s parallels with TV—and in fact, the team has studied the last 50 years of TV programming to better understand their own.
The content streams full-screen; it’s not embedded in some Twitter or Facebook feed with other distractions, or annoyingly cropped wide screen when you’re in portrait mode. The video on Snapchat is simply always filling your phone, end-to-end. And that’s not a trivial point. In fact, Snap has found video completion rates are nine times better when content takes up the full screen, rather than when a landscape video gets shrunk into portrait. (More on this later.)
Its other similarities to TV include the mid-stream ads now being copied by competitors. But most of all, Snapchat has engineered a hyper simplistic control scheme that tacitly echoes the channel changer of yore. Every Snapchat Story is set up in collections of 20-second shots. You tap right to jump to the next cut or screen of content. You tap left to go back. (What is essentially Snapchat's version of channel up or down.) To change the channel, you just swipe out.
These controls can create a boob-tube quality to the app when you're killing time. Compare how on Netflix, it’s always such a decision to watch a new show. On Snapchat, it’s a noncommittal tap away. That’s the power of channel surfing to fix what the industry calls the problem of "discovery." Snapchat surfaces content, not by building elaborate menus full of thumbnails and synopses, but by making the content itself very quick to taste.
Snapchat is not just a TV that fits in your hand. The service is smarter than even the fabled Nielsen box, for which television ratings were traditionally produced. It’s even smarter than web videos that count the seconds you make it in before ditching out.
Because of its tap interface, Snapchat actually can measure how long you stick with videos down to their individual cuts, which allows Snap to reverse engineer what went wrong with a piece of content at unprecedented levels, and make such programming more engaging the next time around.
A Rob Hayes, EVP at NBC Digital put it to me, he analyzes NBC’s content for what he calls "tap outs" (which skips a shot ahead) and "swipe outs" (which skips to another show altogether). His optimal content has neither—you’d watch it straight through. And he imagines a day when content providers might even A/B test different cuts of the same show on Snapchat, like news organizations A/B test headlines today.
To learn from its own content data, Snap first treated itself as the guinea pig, producing its own show about the 2016 election called Good Luck America (GLA). As the company tells us, it learned a lot from this early show. Many insights are exactly what one would expect—the exact sorts of changes that MTV adopted in the late '80s: The narrative had to move forward at a good pace, and dazzling graphics helped keep people watching.
Yet the biggest insight came when the company moved its host, Peter Hamby, from the documentary-style man-on-the street setup you might see in a show by Anthony Bourdain, and instead framed him more often at arm’s length, more like a Snapchat selfie. Rather than relying on traditional studio framing and voice-over, Snapchat’s producers copied what Snapchat’s users did by nature when sharing messages, and spoke directly to the audience. And suddenly, the content clicked. It felt intimate, and perhaps more importantly, native to Snapchat itself.
Over the next two years, Snapchat will put its platform to the test by ramping up on original content initiatives called Snapchat Shows. Sources say Snap has put out an open call for Broad City-style shorts, and the company confirmed with us that it is looking for four-minute narratives that play over, perhaps, eight-episode seasons. Back-of-napkin math shows that one season on Snapchat might be equivalent to a single 30-minute episode of classic television programming.
As one creative within Snap put it to me: If a 30-second commercial can make you cry, what can a four-minute Snapchat video do?
After a successful run with The Voice (which will enter season 2 soon), NBC has recently announced that SNL is coming to Snapchat—and released a three-minute sketch starring SNL cast members Aidy Bryant and Beck Bennett, as the two play a couple heading home from a Trump protest, finding it increasingly hard to survive if they can’t ride in an Uber anymore, or support companies that support Trump. It’s a master class in Snapchat’s current playbook, loaded with split screens and sounds that keep the pace of the piece frantic and funny. "You’ll hear from Snapchat, you can’t go too fast," Hayes says of pacing on the platform.
Snap is already suggesting best practices to content published on its platform. Instructions includes shooting video in portrait. This defies convention in TV, which favors long, establishing environmental pans. But remember that engagement figure I mentioned earlier? That’s why vertical shooting is key. Snap is also promoting new designs for the content itself, like splitting the vertical frame to show a person up top and her context at the bottom. In fact, Snap will even send representatives onto sets, like ad hoc producers, to ensure that creators are shooting shows with best practices in mind.
"I think it really takes a fresh creative perspective for this platform. You know, comedy can lend itself very well to it—news can lend itself, documentary can lend itself," says Hayes. "I think a scripted drama would require a little more creative effort, but I do think we’re going to see more of those as this platform builds." In fact, NBC is currently working on a drama for Snap next—and to execute the concept, Hayes admits that the known playbook quick cuts and liberal use of graphics won’t work.
Snap expects a lot of experimentation over early projects to make the medium grow into something all its own. But there is an advantage to all this 20-second, vertical video, from a competitive perspective: As creators confirmed with us, because Snapchat is vertical while Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram are mostly built for wide-screen, Snapchat content needs to be developed in its own pipeline. That means it’s inherently exclusive stuff that makes it to Snapchat.
There is, of course, one big catch to all of this richer, episodic content that Snapchat hopes to host. To tell a story in sequential order, Snap says it will need to build out something vaguely akin to a Netflix-style queue inside its app, allowing users to not just skip back and forth between scenes of a show, but to find earlier and older episodes, too.
Snap’s design challenge now is to construct that rich information hierarchy, of shows and seasons, without trading its tap-tap-tap remote control interface for the same overwhelming list of content that creates the existential crisis of one’s Netflix queue.
No doubt, Snap has created the first smartphone-native video platform, but it did so by stripping away almost all of the UI scaffolding we’ve come to rely upon to navigate the YouTubes and Hulus of the world—and by reshaping the content itself to complement our hyper-short attention spans.
And if Snap really does pull it all off, and Snapchat becomes the cable TV of the mobile era, well then we have a whole other problem: We’ll be a society of couch potatoes again, albeit on a train, in a restaurant, at a dance recital. Then again, maybe it’s too late to stop that from happening.