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Searching for Answers: Where Did All the Video Podcasts Go?

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It doesn’t take a streaming media expert to know that online video is booming. It has been for a decade and shows no sign of slowing down. We are up past our bedtimes and staying indoors on weekends so we can binge more of our favorite shows. Streaming video is flourishing on connected TVs and mobile devices. We’re streaming in planes, trains, and automobiles. Short- or long-form, paid or ad-supported, we can’t get enough.

That’s true in every area but one: podcasting. We really don’t care for video podcasts. If you’re new to podcasting, you might think that statement is nuts. After all, podcasting is an audio medium, right?

Well, yes and no. Podcasting began with audio files, but video support was soon added in. The term “podcasting” was coined in 2004, but many of us didn’t get our first taste of it until June 2005, when Apple added support in iTunes. Before that, getting podcasts required special software. iTunes made discovering podcasts easy.

I remember downloading video podcasts in those early years, often to help pass the time on the stationary bike at the gym. VH1 made its show Best Week Ever fully available to podcast viewers. I also liked watching tech news and review podcasts from CNET. In 2010, I appeared on a tech video podcast called Gadgets and Games, which was created by a Fox & Friends host.

Video podcasts took a backseat, however, as audio podcasts became massive. So why is this the one area in which people don’t want video?

Looking for perspectives, I asked a few experts why video podcasts haven’t found an audience. Marshall Lewy, chief content officer for the podcast network Wondery, thinks it has to do with competition. “Podcasting actually started as an audio-only medium, so there was already the habit of audio when video was introduced,” he said. “It was more that video didn’t quite catch on. I’m not exactly sure, but I would guess that it’s because there are a lot more places you can go to find on-demand video (YouTube, DVRs, etc.), so video podcasting has never quite found its unique purpose.”

Eric John, deputy director of the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) Video Center of Excellence, reminded me that podcasting isn’t the only area in which audio is taking off. “Digital technology has created an audio-first world where what you hear is more important than what you see,” John said. “Voice is the key interaction—with smart speakers, connected dashboards in cars, and even with our phones. This interest in audio has driven enormous demand for content, and audio publishers have seized the opportunity.”

While Best Week Ever went off the air in 2014, Lewy pointed out that a few shows, including Real Time With Bill Maher, still offer full episode video downloads. The iTunes Store’s podcasting section includes a tab for video podcasts, but there don’t seem to be many.

In the end, I think it was a combination of factors that doomed video to second-tier status in the podcasting world. First is that people really do listen to these shows on their portable devices. Podcasts fill those in-between spots of the day, the times when you might otherwise turn on the radio. We like having them when we’re tidying up the house or making our daily commute. You can’t watch a video screen in those moments.

The other big factor is that video is literally everywhere else. If I wanted to kill time on a stationary bike these days, I’d stream from YouTube or Netflix. If my gym had bad cell service or no Wi-Fi, I’d download Netflix shows to my phone ahead of time. I watched video podcasts years ago because they were the only option, but a lot has changed in the past decade.

“I don’t think video podcasting will ever be more than a niche offering,” Lewy told me, and I think he’s right. Since video has taken over every other digital platform, I guess it’s OK to let audio have this one.

[This article appears in the June 2019 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "Where Did All the Video Podcasts Go?"]

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