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TV Shows Enter the Era of the GIF


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Television was invented in 1927. GIFs have been around since 1987. Yet here we are in 2015 finally witnessing the two formats finding each other.

The popularity of GIFs is tied to the broader trend of visual culture. Just as printing presses popularized the written word, ubiquitous screens and connected devices and formats like emoji and GIFs have ushered in a completely new era of visual culture and communication.

Today, we aren’t limited to describing an emotion or experience (or a moment of TV) with just words– we can use images or even moving pictures, such as GIFs, to share and connect with others. Don’t believe me? Just look at the text or snapchat history of any teenager. Look no further than the many GIF keyboards available for smartphones. Perhaps tomorrow’s Shakespeare will create the modern love story in emoji and GIF.

The GIF is a short, few-second, soundless, looping video clip. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that it would be a good match for TV. TV is video. Then again, if you’re a TV show producer who poured hundreds of hours of blood, sweat and tears into making a 30-minute show, maybe you wouldn’t want to see it reduced to a few seconds of silent video. That’s understandable. It’s also a little short-sighted, and thankfully most producers have moved past that thinking.

This is, after all, the era of Twitter, Facebook and the smartphone. Mobile devices are pushing GIFs into widespread usage. The blogging site Tumblr has some 23 million GIFs posted to its site every day. Facebook began supporting GIFs earlier this year and now has more than five million of them sent through its messaging app on a daily basis. Twitter has long been driven by GIFs and added native support for them in mid-2014.

Today, the biggest shows from The Daily Show with Trevor Noah to The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to Last Week Tonight with John Oliver are using GIFs to share memorable moments on social media just seconds after they air. And they aren’t alone. Sports teams including the Chicago Bulls, Chicago Blackhawks and Jacksonville Jaguars post GIFs of game highlights right after they happen. Political campaigns from both parties are using GIFs to highlight their candidates – and denigrate the opposition. Media outlets including Gawker, Buzzfeed and Politico use GIFs to illustrate their stories.

In October, Hillary Clinton went before Congress to give her much anticipated testimony about Benghazi. What do we remember from that high-pressure, high-profile political showdown? The 2-second silent GIF of her brushing something off her shoulder, which she deftly tweeted later in the week when Republican candidates attacked her during a debate.

(one observer said “Hillary was playing to the gif, perhaps the first politician in history to consciously do so”) The Daily Show posted a short, looped video clip from an early GOP debate that featured a chuckling Donald Trump with a more serious Carly Fiorina and the caption: “When bae is mad you dissed her face.” More than 1,300 people retweeted it and even more liked it.

GIFs have become an important way for shows, teams, media, campaigns and other organizations to extend their reach to a broader audience. People who experienced the moment when it happened on TV get that proud feeling of having witnessed a viral moment live. People who missed it on TV will see it countless times on Facebook and Twitter over the next several hours or even days. A large percentage of those views will happen on a smartphone.

Television has become more interactive, and many of the program choices that people make are based on the information that they get from their friends online. As study by The Hollywood Reporter found that more than half of people use social media to make choices about entertainment. They listen to what their friends say, they read about spoilers and talk about the latest gossip on the show. And they do it in real time. Of the people who post about TV shows on social media, 76 percent of them do so live. It helps them feel connected to others who are watching.

The combination of social media, smartphones and technology such as SnapStream’s Social TV tool (www.snapstream.com), which makes it easy for content producers to instantly capture TV highlights and share them, have brought us this amazing marriage of GIFs and TV. Producers realize the importance of getting clips on Twitter or Facebook quickly before someone beats them to sharing their own content. Posting a “must­-see” TV moment improves social reach and engagement. More reach and engagement means more eyeballs, and that translates to more advertising dollars.

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SnapStream creates a direct connection between TV and social, specifically Twitter and Facebook

It may have taken some 30 years for GIFs and TV to find each other, but the match is proving fruitful for producers and fans alike.


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Rakesh Agrawal

Founder and CEO at SnapStream
SnapStream enables organizations to record and store thousands of hours of TV content, watch TV recordings from a PC or Mac, search TV content like Google lets you search the internet and share highlights on social media.

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