Broadcasters’ social lives

Kate BulkleyFor a few years now, there has been a big question mark over whether SVoD services like Netflix are good or bad news for pay TV. But it seems that just as pay TV operators are adjusting to life with SVoD, there’s something else that could disrupt TV: live streaming on social media websites.

So, are there parallels to be drawn? And if so, what can be learned? Clearly SVoD services are compelling. They are racking up subscribers. According to Ampere Analysis, SVoD net additions now outstrip pay TV subscriptions in the EU. And about a third of people in the major European countries think they won’t ‘use’ broadcast TV in five years’ time. That’s pretty sobering.

Not only do European SVoD homes rank linear channels lower in terms of appreciation, but SVoD homes also watch linear TV less and the level of linear viewing falls even more with younger viewers. These younger people are building their own “next-generation” TV bundles, typically with a Netflix or Amazon Prime subscription at the centre, perhaps adding Spotify for music and a catch-up broadcast TV app like BBC iPlayer on top.

Interestingly, when you add up the cost of creating a next-gen bundle of apps, it totals up to a pretty large monthly fee, so cost doesn’t seem to be the issue. My feeling is that for these younger viewers in particular, the killer app is about access to what they want in the way they want.

So given this trend to build your own ‘next-generation’ bundle and binge on on-demand viewing, how important is it that live TV is also showing up on platforms like Facebook and YouTube?  First of all, in the era of growing demand for SVoD services and on-demand content, does live TV still have a chance? Or is live, so to speak, dead?

The answer is no. First, there is still a big appetite for linear and live TV, especially around live sports and big entertainment shows and breaking news.  Until now live TV has been seen as the one thing that TV still has as a differentiator. But here’s the thing: TV no longer holds the live monopoly.

Netflix doesn’t offer live content – at least not yet – but social media platforms are embracing live video in a big way. And just as TV incumbents risk losing access to their audiences in an on-demand app-based TV world, those same incumbents risk losing the live battle to social media platforms.

The live streaming era is certainly upon us, led by Facebook and YouTube but including many others like Twitter and its streaming app Periscope, which hosted 200 million live broadcasts in April 2016 alone.

YouTube has done live for a while now, ‘broadcasting’ everything from Felix Baumgartner’s live jump from space for Red Bull in 2012 to live coverage of the 2012 Olympics in a whopping 65 countries where the local TV broadcaster did not own all the rights. More recently YouTube has begun live streaming 360° video, including a series on refugees made by Sky News in the UK. YouTube also live-streamed the finals of the Europa and Champions League for BT Sport.

In recent months Facebook has also been making moves. In March it announced a ‘visibility boost’ to any live videos on its platform, basically telling content owners that their videos would be kept at the top by the Facebook algorithm and therefore featured on users’ news feeds. Indeed, Facebook offered to cover the costs for some news outlets of ‘broadcasting’ live video on the platform rather than putting the video on their own websites where they can sell advertising.

The drive to live is because Facebook knows that people watch live streams three times longer than on-demand ones. The changes to the news feed mean that users are more likely to land on a Facebook video while it is still live and the comments that they leave will also be live, and their shares with friends will be live, too, driving tune-in by others in their network. Live video stimulates 10 times more comments than recorded video.

For TV folks, posting live video on these social media platforms offers opportunities to reach a different, typically younger, audience. Sky Sports has used Facebook Live to post bespoke content in the run up to big events, for example recently going live on Facebook with heavyweight boxers Anthony Joshua and Charles Martin before their fight on Sky pay per view. “It’s a different way for our audiences to interact with superstar talent,” says Dave Gibbs, digital director at Sky News and Sky Sports. “It also allows us to extend our coverage and showcase our big events in ways that are authentic for that audience.”

That all sounds good, but as with SVoD services, the traditional TV players have to make sure they don’t give away all their live ammunition to the social media platforms. Offering an expensive football match live on YouTube may be a good marketing and promotion tool but making a habit of it devalues the paid-for product and that raises a strategic business model question that goes beyond winning over hard-to-attract audiences.

Kate Bulkley is a broadcaster and writer specialising in media and telecommunications. [email protected]

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