CNN Sets for News Webolution

CPO Wellen talks CNNgo expansion and the wealth of the TV experience

THIS YEAR’S NEWS TECHNOLOGY SUMMIT, hosted by Broadcasting & Cable and TV Technology, will kick off Oct. 7 in Atlanta with an opening keynote by Alex Wellen, chief product officer at CNN.

Wellen, who has been with the company for over nine years and was named CNN’s first CPO last fall as part of an aggressive expansion of its digital efforts, oversees product development for offerings such as CNNgo, which is an ambitious effort to reinvent the TV news experience. Wellen also provides the strategic vision for CNN’s efforts on mobile, Web, data, video, TV and emerging platforms. Wellen spoke to Next TV contributing editor George Winslow prior to the summit about how he sees the digital news landscape, the evolving TV experience and the place mobile has in that realm. An edited transcript follows.

NTV: What will you be talking about in your keynote at this week’s News Technology Summit?

Alex Wellen: The title of the speech is “Re-imagining the TV News Experience” and I will talk about the evolution of the CNNgo product and how it’s performing and where we are going with it.

In many ways, CNNgo is about the future state of CNN TV. The charge was to build a product that could contextualize every single TV segment in real time, 24/7.

Right now, we are on tablets, smartphones, the Web and television and we are going to expand that by the end of the year to millions of set-top boxes as well.

If you look back at the history of TV Everywhere, what we call CNNgo was initially about giving control to users and enabling them to watch this particular stream exactly as it appeared on a TV anywhere and whenever they wanted on any device including their desktop at work.

What you see with CNNgo is an evolution of that control. It enables the individual to drill down to the segments that are most important to them personally and then get as much or as little context around that story as they desire.

So if we know in the digital newsroom that we have 10 stories and three videos and four photo galleries on the Pope and we are covering the Pope right now on television, we can fuse these two things together and create an experience that is elegant and unitary.

NTV: I presume a lot of those capabilities are based on really good metadata on a very granular level about the content?

AW: You’ve hit my favorite topic. Understanding the metadata around all of our segments in real time and quickly being able to associate what is happening on TV with what is happening in digital is quite a profound challenge and an exciting one that we embraced.

Marrying those together is a combination of hand curation and algorithms. We have individuals in every single control room across the country who are covering our newscast because we don’t know when news will break.

NTV: How did you and your teams come up with the approach you’ve taken with CNNgo to personalize the content by providing the contextualization you’ve been taking about?

AW: It took many iterations and a lot of thought.

We invest deeply in TV linear broadcast and there are thousands of people around this company enabling us to [create] that live stream. We wanted to start with the understanding of that content because in the past, it kind of fell off a cliff. It just disappeared into the archive or library.

So the first step was to understand what we are broadcasting 24/7. Once you atomize and understand the components of the broadcast, then you can reassemble them as needed. You can make a personal stream, you can make a political stream, you can jump around to the content that interests you the most—the trending content and so forth.

But unless you understand those core components, you are kind of stuck.

NTV: There is a lot of talk about mobile first in terms of developing digital production and obviously, mobile is very important in the news arena. How do you see CNNgo, which seems designed to change both the mobile and the TV experience, in light of that?

AW: TV brings a lot of things to a lot of different people and it means a lot of different things to them. People watch us on TV and on mobile devices, so it was important to us to bring that full functionality across all devices. You see that with the iPad execution of CNNgo.

On a mobile device, the time spent might be shorter and your product needs to be that much more precise. It needs to get the consumer where they need to be as quickly as possible.

So this idea of offering up every segment in the last 10 minutes and alerting them to every segment that is coming up in the next 10 minutes is really what the consumer wants. They want to know how to get to the biggest stories as quickly as possible and they want them to be timely.

NTV: What are some of newer consumer trends in electronic devices and digital usage you’re keeping an eye on?

AW: One thing is the Internet of things.

As people go through the day and we understand them better it will be important for CNN to contextualize their life. And so in certain ways it will be about things that they explicitly ask for. In other ways, it will be about things that are implied and finally it will be content that we will handcraft and deliver to them, whether that is on a watch or a piece of clothing.

So, I’m really interested in making CNN personal. I think the question that we toy with is, ‘What does a more personal CNN look like?’ If you can answer that overarching question you are on your way to future-proofing the business.

For more on CNN’s plans for digital news efforts during the upcoming election season, visit