The Future of Media Is Quietly Being Plotted in Boston’s Financial District

Burst wants to bridge the old and new. So why haven't you heard of it?

Photo via iStock/riskms

Photo via iStock/riskms

If you were to guess where the future of media was being devised, odds are an office four floors above Howl at the Moon would be low on your list.

But there, high above that raucous Financial District watering hole and dueling piano joint, the team at Burst is hard at work changing how traditional broadcasters think about mobile, user-generated video—as a lifeboat, rather than a 40-foot tidal wave fast approaching. And major players are taking notice.

Meteorological juggernaut AccuWeather has used Burst’s technology to convert its millions of app users into an army of roving cameramen, whose footage can be algorithmically sorted by rain, wind, snow, and so on. Red Sox and Bruins rightsholder NESN uses Burst to get video from a fan’s phone to its telecast in minutes. Across the pond, the BBC’s considering a series from Sony Pictures Entertainment composed entirely of videos shot with Burst. As the Super Bowl approaches, founder Bryant McBride’s bragged to advertisers he can make the first ad crowdsourced and curated in real-time.

And somehow, the five-year-old, 20-person startup has made all these moves with relative anonymity in Boston.

“Do you know what this is?” McBride says inside his office, adorned with tchotchkes from his seven years as the NHL’s highest-ranking black executive in the 1990s. He waves around a green, foam ring, which bears a suspicious resemblance to a hemorrhoid doughnut. “It’s a waxless flange.” He recounts how two guys made millions reinventing just one component of modern plumbing: the seal between the toilet and the floor. Burst aspires to be the waxless flange, he tells me: the connector between traditional outlets and an audience increasingly glued to their phones.

There has never been a greater demand for video. (After all, just one bit of footage of a smoking Orange Line train can lead the news in this town for a day or two.) It’s why Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion in 2012, and continues to push the live, streaming variety. It’s why Twitter bought Periscope last year. And it’s why nobody should’ve sniggered when Snapchat turned down Zuckerberg’s $3 billion offer two years ago, or when they rolled out wearable “Spectacles” this year. They want your eyeballs, sure—and your data, too. 

“The world has gone from four channels, to 500 channels, and we’re now a billion-channel world. And the people who know how to navigate that are going to win,” McBride says. “There will be a group of legacy publishers who will get the future imposed upon them, and there will be a group of broadcasters that create it.”

Here’s how it works: Instead of trawling social media, Burst lets publishers scoop up user-generated video using a short URL. Publishers share it onscreen or on social media, users 18 and older follow it, agree to terms, and shoot footage (horizontally, of course) that instantly becomes the publishers’ property. For example, at a high school football game in El Paso, a fan gets the timeless thrill of seeing themselves on TV, and KFOX-14—one of more than 40 stations owned by Sinclair Media Group using Burst for news-gathering—spends a fraction of what it would’ve otherwise, freeing up crews for other assignments.

In its earliest form, Burst—McBride’s seventh startup—was designed to create and share collaborative “bubbles,” or live-updating albums of photos and video, in a family-friendly way. With this pitch, he raised $3.5 million in 2012 from investors that include Red Sox part-owner Tom DiBenedetto and Katie Couric. But as the company grew and the media landscape contorted, Burst shifted its focus again. And again. And a few times more, until it found its sweet spot.

Joseph Maar, vice president of programming at NESN, says the “lightbulb moment” came during a conversation with McBride. “I point to the TV in the room and said, ‘That’s the biggest bubble of all. There are hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously watching that bubble right now. And so how do we get your bubble on that bubble?'”

The team of cameramen and the footage they obtained were no different than one of Burst’s proprietary bubbles, Maar reasoned, so why not invite fans to join in, whether they’re at Fenway, at home, or, in one of Maar’s favorite examples, on a yacht in the middle of Boston Harbor? Burst and NESN inked a partnership deal in June 2014.

According to the latest Nielsen reports, 18-24-year-olds watch nine fewer hours of traditional TV per week than they did in 2011. In that same five-year span, nearly 40 percent of this age group’s traditional TV viewing time went elsewhere.

“TV is not dead, or anywhere close to being dead,” says Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. “People still watch a ton of television, but there is significant evidence that younger people have shifted a lot of their viewing habits from broadcast or from cable to internet-delivered video.”

These young eyeballs are wandering, whether to “over-the-top” (OTT) streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, which can either supplement or replace cable; or mobile video platforms, like Snapchat Stories and Facebook Live. To cash in on the former, McBride says they’re developing a social viewing experience for OTT services. So when your favorite character is killed off in a twist ending, Burst hopes you’ll shoot and share your reaction directly to the streaming episode for your friends to see.

“TV’s real weakness is that it’s one experience at a time,” Benton says. “The ability of something like Netflix to provide a much greater increase in variety based on the constraint of its catalog, and then social media’s essentially infinite pool of content that can be called upon at any time, is just a huge advantage [over traditional broadcast TV].”

The goal for traditional broadcasters then, according to McBride, shouldn’t be getting millennials to watch the 6 o’clock news—that ship’s sailed. Instead, they ought to set their sights on owning the “video origination point,” or VOP. Own the spot where mobile video is created and distributed, and reap the benefits, such as the scads of data that comes along with it.

“It’s the Trojan horse. Remember that data isn’t just text. It’s rich media. You can see what people are doing!” McBride says. “And I don’t want to creep people out and I won’t do that, but there’s so much information in video, as compared to text. You’ve got to be mindful and smart and never, ever creepy about that…It’s insane how much data there is.”

The number of companies collecting data on you is fast growing. The new Xbox console’s camera is reportedly capable of watching your facial expressions and reactions, even when you aren’t playing. Facebook’s targeted advertising is so unsettlingly precise because it’s leased out information on nearly everything about you, from the car you drive to the restaurants you like to visit.

The scramble for that data will only get more crowded, thanks in part to Burst. Traditional publishers and advertisers won’t have to kowtow to Facebook and Twitter to get the data they need to reach the elusive millennial. What they do with this data will be one of the most important questions as the future of media unfolds.