Rory Cellan-Jones

A New Media inauguration?

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 20 Jan 09, 01:00 GMT

Will Barack Obama's inauguration in Washington today prove to be the biggest new media event ever? Maybe - but it could also turn out to be a triumph for the old media.

If you want to watch the event live, then there are innumerable ways. Here in the UK you can see it on BBC1 and, if you have multi-channel TV, on Sky News, CNN or plenty of others. But that is just the beginning. If you're at a computer rather than in front of the telly, it will still be very easy to watch the swearing-in of President Obama live, with everyone from Joost to C-SPAN - and of course this site - offering a live stream.

Then there is all the social networking and other interactive bells and whistles. So Facebook and Twitter will be alive with comments and links, and just about every other site will be telling you theirs is the best place to be to experience the swearing-in of the 44th President. Barack Obama

One of our rivals, CNN, has what sounds like a great idea. It is asking anyone who is attending the inauguration to take a photo at precisely 1200 (1700 GMT) when Obama takes the oath and send it to the cable news station. They will then use a Microsoft program called Photosynth to create what could be an extraordinary 3D image of a moment in history.

The BBC website also has all sorts of plans. There will be a live event page, with reports from correspondents in the field, blog posts, and Twitter messages. There will be video reactions sent in by users of services like Seesmic and Qik, and there will be a "mood map" with people around the world invited to say whether they are optimistic or pessimistic about an Obama administration, and their reactions then flagged on the map.

I looked back at our online coverage of the inauguration of President George W Bush in January 2001. It looks pretty plain vanilla - lots of text, but no embedded video or social networking. Of course back then in the dim and distant past, nobody had heard of Facebook, MySpace or Twitter - because they did not exist.

So, given all of this innovation, how many people will choose to be online rather than on the sofa for President Obama's inaugural speech? Back in 2001, the BBC site was used by around one million people on an average day, whereas these days an average audience is six million, and that rises to 10 million for really big events, like the US Presidential election back in November.

But one of my colleagues, who analyses our web traffic, isn't convinced that the inauguration will be a big online event, pointing out that it doesn't play to the strengths of the internet. He told me that big web events involve a lot of data, like an election, or a lot of conflict, with people coming online to argue. With Barack Obama already elected and the sole focus of the event, there is not much information to digest - and not a lot to argue about.

What this feels like is a classic television event. Of modern inaugurations, that of Ronald Reagan in 1981 drew the biggest US television audience with around 42 million people tuning in, while George W Bush's second inaugural address in 2005 was watched by just 15 million. There are predictions that President Obama will bust all records - in the US and globally. So this looks like an event that could see the old media - or at least one of them, broadcast television - stage a fightback.

But the great thing about the online coverage is that it will be around for years to come, as a resource for history students and schoolchildren. I've been looking at YouTube, where I found plenty of videos of President Kennedy's celebrated inaugural address. Barack Obama's acceptance speech in Chicago was the most popular piece of video ever on the BBC site, with 1.7 million views. Perhaps his inaugural address - if he gets it right - will break that record?


  • Comment number 1.

    BBC HD is also broadcasting it although I don't know if that is counted as "new" or "old" media.

  • Comment number 2.

    It won't only be a TV event for couch potatoes, though. In common with many other people I'm going along to watch it on a big screen with a crowd of others, so that we can share the experience and have a drink together. So I'll be heading off to Cambridge Guildhall this afternoon instead of turning on the tv...

  • Comment number 3.

    I disagree with our colleague. I think it will be a very big online event.
    Many people are at work. And there are plenty of live streams.
    Many people want to fell part of it - and online allows people to share views.
    Many websites are leveraging Twitter, Social networks, photos, video very well.

    I think the stats will be strong.

  • Comment number 4.

    Most people who care are going to want to see this event and share the experience with others.

    For those of us not able to be there, that will mean video plus people. For some (like billthom) that will be a screen in a pub with friends, for others a live stream and some kind of online chat, for others the TV switched on at work.

    Both old and new media will help people to engage with this event, but the number of people making the effort to be there is interesting. A lot of them will be using new media to send back their own pictures and impressions of what is going on.

    Still I think our colleague's intuition on this could be right. There might not be enough to sustain interest after the oath is sworn. CNN might have the right idea.

  • Comment number 5.

    The video of his speech should get a lot of hits on your site. It's due at 5pm GMT - when many are still at work or commuting & so will view it later. I'll watch it on this site when I eventually get home tonight. Then (hopefully) I can listen to all of it if I want, and not just the edits that are on TV/radio news.

    Don't forget YouTube etc too. Obama's 'Yes We Can' speech got over 2 million hits.
    But the spin offs - the speech set to music by the Black Eyed Peas (15 million hits), the image slide shows, the parodies, mashups, ripostes etc got millions more.

    Events such as these now have a long tail and a very wide international audience reach.

  • Comment number 6.

    This is supposed to be the inauguration of a President.... instead it is being paraded around like a Festivity Show. Has politics really become that detatched from the real world or has America always blantantly treated politics as a game since it was the only democratic superpower?

    Fair enough, Barrack Obama is about to become the first black US President. But his time is better spent inside the Oval Office right now doing work and making the changes he preaches instead of gallovanting around proclaiming himself to be the second coming of some sort.

    Obama you are a leader, not a celebrity. And if this offends anyone then even better, because politics is a serious matter and not an entertainment show!

  • Comment number 7.

    I had the best of both worlds watching it on TV with my laptop in front of me seeing peoples reactions on twitter and facebook.


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites