First Impressions of Instagram TV

10th July 2018 No comments

Two weeks ago Instagram announced their brand new video platform Instagram TV. This is our hot take on IGTV and what it means for video producers and businesses who use video as part of their marketing and communications strategies.

Watch the video to hear my thoughts, or continue reading below for my thoughts (expanded)…

For those who don’t know (it sounds silly, but some people don’t!), Instagram is a popular social network owned by Facebook where people can share photos and videos with their friends and the wider world. It’s designed to be used on smartphones, although they do have a web version of their platform too — but I don’t know anybody who uses it this way. Last year Instagram announced their Stories feature which I gradually fell in love with and have come to appreciate as one of the platform’s best features, and I generally think Instagram is one of the best social networking platforms available at the moment.

Instagram’s latest addition, Instagram TV (IGTV for short), is a video-only platform that lives inside the main Instagram app and as a separate, standalone app for smartphones. In and of itself it’s not particularly groundbreaking as a video platform, at least not compared to what you’d expect from a modern video platform in 2018: You can watch videos and they play sequentially — when one video finishes the next one starts; you can find videos that have been uploaded by people you follow and you can search for videos from bigger channels and influencers from across the platform; for video creators, you can upload videos, change the thumbnail, and also see basic insights about how many people have watched your videos, and you get an engagement graph that shows you where your viewers start to drop off. This is all pretty standard stuff nowadays.

The thing that makes Instagram TV unique is that videos can only be uploaded and viewed in portrait format. This is different to platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Vimeo where videos are mainly shared in landscape / with a widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio. The portrait requirement is very unusual, especially as modern video cameras don’t encourage filmmakers to shoot in this orientation. But, just as the best device for viewing portrait video is a smartphone, the best way for capturing portrait video is one too, and smartphones have always been Instagram’s home ground.

Instagram TV 1

Why does IGTV exist?

Instagram’s entry into this space is a clear aim at YouTube, who have admittedly become an easy target in recent years. When you look beyond the fact that YouTube has become the backbone for an incredible amount of video content on the internet, YouTube as a service has a fairly young demographic. Teenagers are increasingly turning to YouTube over traditional TV to watch vloggers like Casey Neistat, to watch music videos, and to watch content that would traditionally have been broadcast on TV. (I’m sure there are older readers who have never been to YouTube without a purpose, just to browse what’s available, like you would on Netflix or with your TV’s EPG, but the younger audience is doing exactly this.)

With YouTube earning an estimated revenue of 3.96 billion US dollars in 2018 from advertising on it’s platform, Instagram (and Facebook) are keen to shift some of that money in their direction. While there are no adverts on IGTV at this point, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom mentioned that it would be “a reasonable place to end up” – and I don’t think anybody could expect a platform owned by Facebook to not go in this direction. Ads are their business.

Instagram already has a wealth of “influencers” on its service, from A-list stars like Kim Kardashian to niche industry thought leaders like Philip Bloom, all of whom are making and publishing content through their Instagram profiles. It makes complete sense that they would tap into these users to power their next push into capturing a bigger slice of the world’s attention.

Instagram TV 2

Should I adopt Instagram TV right now?

For anybody who currently makes video, whether it’s for personal reasons or for use within a business, the inevitable question arises. “Should I be using IGTV?”

At the moment the biggest hurdle for adopting IGTV is the portrait video format. Video isn’t traditionally filmed in portrait orientation and the best devices for watching video aren’t built for it either; portrait video doesn’t look good on a tablet, computer or TV. The only place that portrait video makes sense is on a smartphone, and viewers can always turn their device on its side to watch the video in landscape with little effort. At worst they can always watch a landscape video with a top and bottom letterbox.

For anybody creating high quality, meaningful content who wants to reach the widest possible audience, filming for portrait orientation is going to hinder the chances of the video being watched on any device other than a smartphone. Therefore, I think the best content is still going to remain in landscape and IGTV is not going to be an important consideration for delivery — which could hurt its adoption.

Equally, even when it’s possible, converting landscape video to portrait orientation takes time. The simple version is to blow up the video behind a shrunken-down landscape video and blur the background, effectively letter boxing the landscape video. However, reformatting video content to properly fit the portrait frame takes much longer.

Instagram TV 3
Portrait video letter-boxed with traditional black bars at the top and bottom

I spent a few hours yesterday converting some of our previous video blogs and our showreel into portrait format for Southpoint Films’ IGTV channel. It was a tedious and slightly disappointing process. There were some videos that I couldn’t convert without spending hours completely redesigning graphics sequences, so I didn’t convert them at all. Even when I could convert the videos there were times when a lot of content was missing from the shot because it was off-screen, or I compromised by splitting the screen with two different shots to give me more aspect ratio to play with towards the lower end of the screen.

My take above may sound like I’m pessimistic about IGTV, but it’s important to remember that it wasn’t all that long ago that Instagram was a photo-only service, and that you could only upload photos in a square aspect ratio. Historically, Instagram isn’t afraid of change and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to believe that they’ll open up the platform to other aspect ratios in time. But as it stands currently, I wouldn’t throw out the current video or marketing strategy just to incorporate IGTV into your plans at this point in time.


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