Great technological changes are often the product of a catalyzing event. Wristwatches became a popular accessory in the wake of World War I. Twitter became our planet’s news and notification network after Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger landed the hobbled US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in January 2009. I flashed back to those events on March 26 this year when I viewed multiple live video streams on my phone of a tragic fire in New York’s East Village, captured with an app called Periscope. It instantly felt like a signal moment.
Many technologies have coalesced to enable mobile live video to blossom. High-speed cellular networks envelop the planet. There are more than 1 billion smartphone users. Apps are relatively simple to use. And you can use Twitter and Facebook to gain attention quickly. The digital watercoolers of Twitter and Medium were abuzz this spring with the hype about the live-video phenomenon, particularly trying to suss out a winner between Periscope (which is owned by Twitter) and rival app Meerkat. It’s a great Internet fight, but it misses the disruption taking place here: The 65-year-old broadcast television experience is being reinvented for our mobile world. Smartphones bring interactivity, immediacy, and engagement to our traditional ways of consuming video.
The $70-billion-a-year television business (in the U.S.) has been under attack from all sides—Amazon, Netflix, YouTube, and other services are all stealing attention (and revenue). But amid the shift to on-demand entertainment, traditional TV has doubled down on what only it can offer: live events, particularly news, sports, and weather. Easy-to-use, mobile live-streaming services could upend what has been the last sacrosanct aspect of the TV industry. This doesn’t necessarily mean doom and gloom for TV networks; in fact, it creates a universe of fascinating possibilities for them to reimagine their businesses. IPhones can deliver high-quality video (ads shot with an iPhone 6 look as good as any other); add a selfie stick and anyone is ready to live-stream. This radically changes the economics of news gathering, so much so that some TV networks would not speak with me on the record given their union contracts with camera operators.
“Every new medium needs new ways of storytelling,” says Alex Iskold, who previously created an online video startup and now runs the incubator TechStars NYC. Iskold expects that we’ll quickly move beyond people live-streaming the contents of their refrigerators (yes, that is a thing; the live-streaming equivalent of using Twitter in 2006 to report what you ate for breakfast) to high-quality, live TV shows broadcast via Periscope and promoted via Twitter. Some of the most compelling content I’ve seen on these new apps—the San Francisco red-carpet premiere for season 2 of HBO’s Silicon Valley and NBC’s Jimmy Fallon sharing his monologue rehearsals—are TV-related events that combine immediacy and interactivity to produce deeply engaging programming.
Television networks could exploit these new technologies to deepen their relationships with viewers and move from digital cable to smartphones. The Weather Channel is emblematic of the potential that mobile live-streaming has for the business. First, consider the numbers: While the Weather Channel itself averages somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 viewers during the day, more than 100 million people use its mobile apps, and they are watching more than 65 million videos a month so far this year. It has been early to experiment with Periscope and Meerkat. “Live streams might replace satellite trucks,” says CEO David Kenny. He foresees a world where he’ll have 100,000 reporters live-streaming weather reports from their respective corners of the globe.
Technology will let Kenny gather weather-related news more cheaply, from more places, more often, and he anticipates training this army of professional and amateur correspondents to live-stream effectively. Then his team back at headquarters will check the authenticity of the video and curate the best stuff to bring to viewers. The resulting experience on cable (or the Weather Channel app) would package analysis, context, and insight around the best footage.
The one fly in the ointment is that only a fraction of the potential audience is online to watch a live stream at any given time. Already many folks have complained that 90% or more of the links they click on send them to a live stream that’s concluded. While one could argue that this makes those who do tune in live even more valuable—particularly to advertisers—live-streaming needs to allow for some content to live beyond the moment it’s created.
Snapchat has been the best in striking the right balance thus far. Because Snapchat Stories live for 24 hours, they marry immediacy with flexibility. Almost every day, I try to catch up with the feeds of my photographer friends and see their behind-the-scenes lives as depicted on Snapchat. Most of them don’t want me to miss out on their daily missives, and that’s the last thing I want too. Snapchat has what every media entity craves: daily engagement. When Snapchat announced its Discover channel featuring media content that would expire in 24 hours just like any other Snapchat Story, which brands dominated its lineup? Comedy Central, National Geographic, CNN, Food Network, and Vice. Sounds a lot like my cable package. “Whether a new ecosystem forms around live streams or the old [TV] ecosystem migrates [to mobile], that remains to be seen,” Kenny says. But he adds, “Value will fly to those who attract and engage people every day. I like our hand.”