An interesting thing has happened to live television in the past year or so. It’s become social.
Using Twitter, and to a lesser degree, Facebook, traditional TV viewers have incorporated a “second screen” alongside their television sets, creating massive social events out of live TV specials such as the Oscars or Grammy Awards, the Super Bowl, popular weekly programs like American Idol, and even—in an odd DVR-era twist—commercials.
According to Twitter execs, during broadcasts of Fox TV’s huge hit series Glee, Twitter usage increases 30 times its normal average for the entire duration of the program. From personal experience, I can tell you that my eyes spend more time looking at my Twitter #americanidol feed during that show than at the Idols themselves performing onscreen.
But as millions of others understand, the two experiences are absolutely intertwined, creating a communal viewing event like never before on TV. During the Academy Award Red Carpet pre-show and awards ceremony, I worked my hash tags furiously, taking in the super-sized, super-chatty experience of the Twitter-infused Oscar gala from my living room—where if you want to get technical about it, it was really just my wife and I. It sure didn’t feel that way, though. Rather, it seemed like I was hanging out with thousands of other witty and opinionated movie and fashion fans, all gathered together to share a common interest.
In a Fast Company interview, Twitter’s Director of Media Partnerships, Chloe Sladden, put it this way: “What we’re seeing now is that Twitter is, in fact, about flocking audiences back to a shared experience, and that usually means a live one.” If you’re not watching live—and reading the comments from friends, your favorite celebrities, and even total strangers via Twitter—you’re missing half the show.
During his keynote speech at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Twitter CEO, Dick Costolo, explained that there are business implications to this trend. “TV shows become events, meaning people watch them as they happen. We’re so used to creating experiences for our users, but now our users are creating experiences for each other.”
In other words, through Twitter and Facebook, viewers are rediscovering the enjoyment of being part of a live audience, if only digitally, creating an exciting social framework for over-the-air and cable television fare. And in a strange turn of events, it would seem that old-school TV has become more social than its online video counterpart, at least for the time being.
The Sometimes Solitary Nature of Online Video
For years, the strength of online video has been its flexibility and—relative to the TV we all grew up with, at least—its interactivity. What has traditionally made online video so relevant and useful has been the ability to place it directly into the context of a person’s browsing, searching and consuming habit, at any time, day or night. Additionally, viewers can comment and share opinions for others who find their way to the video later and pass it along to others. Certainly that represented a step up from old TV, which lacked any form of direct interactivity at all.
But there is also a certain solitariness to watching most online video. Using YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook or other video-sharing sites, we seek out or stumble upon a certain video and can tell from comments left by previous web travelers that others have passed through before us. But we are mostly alone when we watch our YouTube videos and are therefore not overly inclined to share or comment. Some of us may pass along the video or tell a friend using one of the social media sites or email. Then we move on, unlikely to return.
Online video may, at times, be viral, but it is not as immediate as other formats that fall under the social media umbrella. When we watch video from a favorite online site, we may feel a sense of community, but not one that meets and talks together at the same time. In that way, online video does not enjoy and share equally in the spoils of the Social Web.
That’s why we seem to be on the edge of a major explosion in live streaming video—the kind made easily available and distributed by the video consuming masses. As customer and viewer outreach demands that we become more personal, more connected, and more real-time, so will the desire for customers and viewers to comment, participate, and engage with the content as it’s happening, and to feel the same connection to the shared experience that Twitter’s Sladden explained. Online communities will grow tighter and will begin creating their own events and experiences around the content they find on television and with live video, online as well.
YouTube Joins the Live Stream Scene
Live streaming video is certainly not a new idea. Companies like Livestream, Justin.tv, Stickam, and LiveClicker (co-founded by the Video Commerce Consortium’s own Justin Foster) have all provided live streaming capabilities for some time. UStream has been a popular live stream tool for many, including most recently Charlie Sheen’s much-discussed live video effort (ahem), Sheen’s-Korner. The NCAA March Madness live streaming initiative saw huge increases in total visits and overall online consumption over 2010.
While it’s not a new idea, it looks like its time may have arrived. The YouTube announcement last week that the giant video site is finally rolling out a live stream service to its base of online broadcasters should provide a huge boost to the live stream movement online. Up to now, YouTube’s live efforts have been standalone events, such as last week’s live Duran Duran concert directed by David Lynch, in partnership with American Express and Vevo.
In a blog post, YouTube execs explained that the live stream rollout would be gradual, with the goal of providing live stream capabilities to thousands of partners “in the months ahead,” with the initial batch of live offerings found at the new YouTube Live browse page at www.youtube.com/live.
When YouTube users have full access to the live stream capability, we’ll surely see a rise across the online video spectrum in appointment-driven programming, a move that should be welcomed by the twittering TV fans that are driving the communal viewing entertainment model—and that represent the next logical step for online video in the high-touch, one-to-one environment of the Social Web.
To be sure, not all video is social. Some online video is created for purely utilitarian reasons, be it a product demonstration or how-to video. This is obviously not the type of online video that requires the energy of a live audience. But there are many other examples of online events that live streaming technology can improve immeasurably through its authenticity, ability for live interaction and power of community.
And further, live stream events do not negate the on-demand experience for those that can’t participate in real-time. It simply extends value of the video content many brands are already creating. Content can be streamed live as it is created as part of a live event within the community, then stored online for the usual on-demand viewing for anyone that can’t be part of the live stream. If you’ll pardon the cliché, on Sheen’s-Korner, I believe this is commonly referred to as “winning.”
It remains to be seen how quickly live streaming video will catch on with everyday brands and content creators, but as we’ve seen with Twitter, there is a strong marketplace for communal video, and for anyone growing their online video outreach and thinking about their strategy for the next 12 months, it’s time to start thinking about how live streaming video can help strengthen your community and create additional buzz around the video you’re already producing.
Rich Fahle is the founder of Astral Road Brand Media, a digital marketing agency for authors, artists and content creators of all types. He is the former Vice President of Content, Digital Outreach and Entertainment for Borders. Follow on Twittter @richfahle. More info at www.astralroad.com.