The future of live broadcasting production, is it Live Streaming?
YouTube is responding to Facebook’s live streaming push with its own investments As Jeremy Corbyn prepared to unleash his digital manifesto to “democratise the internet”, his advisers knew the best way to do it. The leader’s big policy speech should be shown not on the BBC or Sky News, but on Facebook Live. This revolution would not be televised, but it would be streamed. […]
Using live streaming would demonstrate again Corbyn’s unique grasp of the power of social media and its potential to herald a new era of voter engagement through “massive multi-person online deliberation”.
Alas, as the faithful and the sceptical logged on to his Facebook page to watch last Tuesday, Corbyn was apparently undone by dodgy Wi-Fi. His Facebook Live audience was treated only to scrambled pictures and unintelligible sound.
The Labour leader is not the first to be frustrated by live streaming, and is unlikely to be the last. Yet with the arrival of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to the field, along with a new breed of ambitious young companies that aim to usurp traditional live broadcasters altogether, there is now serious money backing the growth of the medium and pushing for professional live broadcasting production quality.
Facebook has earmarked $50m (£38m) for live videos, handing out contracts to online publishers such as BuzzFeed and Vice Media, as well as individual celebrities including Gordon Ramsay. The dominant social network aims to augment the supply of live footage offered up by brand marketers and its 1.7 billion ordinary users with more professional and entertaining efforts that can gather larger audiences.
Publishers are being encouraged to participate despite Mark Zuckerberg’s claims that live video sharing by ordinary users “gives people more intimate environments and more raw environments where you have a reason to just be yourself”.
BuzzFeed, for instance, scored what was viewed as an early success for the Facebook Live professional push in April by live streaming footage of staff wrapping a watermelon in elastic bands until it exploded. At its peak more than 800,000 people watched the stunt live, and replays have brought the total up to 11 million.
Facebook says its expansion into live streaming, which began last summer, means users return more to its apps and website, and are more engaged when they do, making them more valuable to advertisers. Not to be outdone, Google’s video arm, YouTube, is touting the growth of its live streaming services. Last week it said views of live videos were up 80pc year-on-year, although it did not say from what number.
It is also encouraging more professional live broadcasting production and broadcaster-style professionalism among live streamers. Last week YouTube’s Los Angeles production studios played host to a live comedy sketch show modelled on the long-running NBC programme Saturday Night Live. The YouTube-backed show, called Smosh Live, attracted fewer than 60,000 live viewers at the peak of its hour and 20 minutes, but has drawn more than 25 times that in replays.
Online, as on traditional television, the biggest audiences for live events are drawn by sport. The biggest ever YouTube live audience was for last season’s Champions League final, which in the UK BT decided to stream live for free to all-comers alongside its traditional television broadcast.
“What we did was to partner up with YouTube to run an experiment to see how many people would actually watch this live on YouTube,” says Delia Bushell, managing director of BT TV. “There was something like 1.8 million watching live just on digital platforms, not even on TV.”
As on-demand subscription streaming services led by Netflix and Amazon gain mass-market acceptance and reach millions of UK homes, the rise of live streaming is being seen as another opportunity to shake up the old order of pay-TV. While Facebook and YouTube’s live efforts are designed mostly to increase and improve the quality of audiences for advertisers, others are plotting more direct attacks on traditional appointment-to-view programming.
Perform Group, the former FTSE 250 sports media company, is leading the charge on to this uncertain new ground. Its biggest shareholder, the billionaire Len Blavatnik’s holding company Access Industries, two years ago agreed to take the company private and invest heavily in its management’s plan to create an international “Netflix for sport”.
The service that emerged, called DAZN, has now been up and running for a month in Germany, and less than two weeks in Japan. For €9.99 (£8.43) a month it offer sports fans a wide selection of live coverage, including English Premier League football, American football’s NFL, basketball and others.
In Germany, Perform has so far only secured rights to highlights of top flight domestic football, but in Japan it has signed an exclusive 10-year, £1.5bn live deal with the J-League beginning next year. If all goes to plan, Perform will soon start working through a target list of 30 countries it believes have the right mix of broadband infrastructure and affordable sports rights, says chief executive Simon Denyer. If live streaming is to challenge broadcast television in the big money arena of sport, careful calculations are required.
“We looked at macro-economic factors, GDP and general wealth stuff,” says Denyer. “But the next most important thing was infrastructure. What was the average broadband speed in the market, what was the penetration of broadband and how far had the 4G mobile roll-out gone in that country.”
Without high-quality internet connections, Perform says it cannot hope to attract and retain customers who are also courted by reliable satellite and cable pay-TV operators.
“Then we did a lot of data analysis of the number of fans of each sport in each territory and looked at how much revenue those sports are currently earning from broadcast rights fees,” Denyer adds. “We’re looking for the outliers where we can say hang on, this territory has got really good mobile and broadband infrastructure and loads of sports fans, but the actual amount per fan that rights holders are getting seems really low.”
That calculation means Perform must rule out its home market for now. A combination of patchy broadband quality and some of the world’s most expensive sports rights, driven ever higher by the battle between BT and Sky, means an independent internet operator cannot compete.
“For us the[UK] broadband infrastructure isn’t as good as a Japan or a Germany,” says Denyer. “We’ve now been streaming in Germany for a month. The average stream that we’re delivering is 4.67 megabits per second. That is really good quality. The average person is getting a picture almost as good as HD TV. So we are managing to get into Germany a TV-quality picture using internet delivery methods.
“When you do the analysis, the UK is in the list of 30 countries we’d like to do one day, but it’s nowhere near the top of the list of priorities because it doesn’t quite have the right level of infrastructure yet.”
Perform’s ambitions have attracted investment interest from the likes of Facebook, YouTube and Amazon, according to City sources. There is so far little sign of a headlong rush into live sport streaming from the cash-rich tech giants, however, to the relief of traditional pay-TV operators. To date, Twitter and Yahoo have edged on to the field of play with relatively small and experimental deals for NFL rights.
Netflix is also monitoring the rise of live sport on the internet, but has yet to make a move.
The technical and financial hurdles to mass internet broadcasting also remain intimidating, Denyer admits. Despite piggybacking on the internet infrastructure built by telecoms companies, Perform will have to spend heavily on rights each time it enters a market and on technology to ensure its pictures arrive on screens intact.
Getting it wrong can cost. In its first season as a Premier League broadcaster, BT faced a barrage of complaints over unreliable live streams. Meanwhile, Sky’s Now TV streaming service triggered apoplexy among football fans when it collapsed on the last day of the Premier League in 2012 as Manchester City snatched their first title in decades.
Sky invested heavily in its streaming technology following that embarrassment and is now seen as one of the leaders in delivering live pictures via the internet, on a grand scale
If a relatively small player such as Perform can make it work, there is every chance that the giants of Silicon Valley will seek to expand their live streaming efforts into sport.
If not, there are probably other ways to explode a watermelon.
For Professional live broadcasting production