The state of live video: one milestone reached and the path still ahead

C-SPAN broadcasting a Periscope live feed, yesterday.  Source: @igorvolsky

C-SPAN broadcasting a Periscope live feed, yesterday.
Source: @igorvolsky

Yesterday was an interesting day in the life of livestreaming apps. As members of the House of Representatives started a protest, Representative Ted Poe, (R-TX) declared the House in recess and turned off the C-SPAN cameras. After the official cameras were turned off, the sit-in participants turned to Facebook Live and Periscope to film and broadcast what was going on. The amazing part of the process is that C-SPAN picked up these livestreams and broadcast them in place of the official cameras. Even though there are rules in place prohibiting “rogue” video broadcasts, the fact that it was the Representatives themselves who were in charge of the cameras created a situation where it was awkward to stop them.

Which brings me to the milestone: Representatives aren’t known for being tech savvy and adopting the latest technology. Periscope was launched in March 2015 and was bought by Twitter two months before that. Facebook launched Live for “celebrities” on August 2015 (are Congresspeople celebrities?) and expanded the availability in April 2016. That’s a scant two months ago! For these services to be used so quickly by mainstream users is incredible.

Recode has the stats: Facebook says that 19 Representatives used Facebook Live and streams have been watched 3 million times. Twitter, in stats released yesterday and have yet to be updated, says 1 million streams were watched. It seems that C-SPAN switched between the two constantly but it would be interesting to see what service was broadcast more.

Recode also says it is “skeptical that most people want to watch their entertainment when it’s live, except in very rare instances — like the Super Bowl, or the Oscars.” Yet it turns out that for news (not entertainment) being live is important. Sure, some viewers will go back and watch older streams out of curiosity, but mostly news is news when it happens.

Which brings me to the second part of the post: what is the path still ahead? In my opinion it’s access. Periscope created a channel with the hashtag #NoBillNoBreak so that its users could easily access the streams, but that access is, of course, limited to its users (the latest stat, from almost a year ago, is 10 million registered users.) Facebook has a huge audience (260 million users in the US and Canada) but doesn’t make Live Video easy to stumble into, though there is a page with all live streams. It took C-SPAN, a relatively minor cable channel but with 47 million regular viewers to bring this story to the masses. The other news channels picked it up from there.

It’s interesting that it took a cable channel, an old medium, to bring this new tech to the masses. From the product perspective, Periscope was doing it right, but only for its users and Twitter users that can view it live as well. Facebook could do a better job with integration, but is hindered by constraints of the newsfeed algorithm and the sensitivity of choosing “trending news” topics. Perhaps it is not the access that needs improving but the discoverability: how can users know that interesting broadcasts are happening outside their interest bubble? Could it be that, counterintuitively, the social graph is hindering access to newsworthy streams? And again, what determines newsworthiness?

In this case, it made sense for C-SPAN to broadcast what was happening in the House because this is what they do. Will other cable channels take up this trend? Will the Discovery channel switch to a livestream if a diving expedition runs into some sharks? Will the Food Network show amateur cooks streaming from their own home kitchens? Will it require the editorial and curation abilities of established information sources to really make livestreaming mainstream, or can those abilities be replicated by Twitter and Facebook as they grow their livestreaming products? Regardless, yesterday was an important milestone. Let’s see how livestreaming grows from here.

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