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The State of Live Video 2017

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Was live online video all about sports in 2016? No, but it sometimes felt like it was. The common wisdom says sports is the one thing people still make an effort to watch live (although 84.3 percent of pay TV subscribers with DVRs record games to watch later, sports video company Thuuz Sports announced in December 2016), so several platforms signed big-league deals last year to get a piece of the excitement.

The biggest news came from the NFL. Streaming Forum attendees got an early indication of what the league was planning in February when Shannon Rutherford, former director of digital media video operations for the NFL (he’s since moved on to Amazon), said in a keynote address that TV viewing for professional football had flatlined, and that the NFL’s future is with online streaming. Not long after that, in April, the NFL signed a deal with Twitter to stream 10 Thursday night games live. The short messaging platform created special viewing pages that showed the live video at the top while related tweets whizzed by below. The idea was to combine live video and Twitter in a way that would enhance both, where fans could contribute a comment without taking their eyes off the game.

The numbers for the NFL streams weren’t amazing—Twitter reported between 2 million and 3 million viewers per game—but this was an experiment, and viewers were still learning about it. TV ratings were down for the NFL early in the season (leading many to wonder if online streaming was the cause), but they rebounded after the 2016 presidential election concluded.

While Twitter gushed about how well the Thursday night streaming went, telling GeekWire it has an average minute audience of about 250,000 per game, the NFL kept mum about whether or not it would renew the deal next season, only saying that it’s evaluating its options. 

The next biggest live sports deal was MLB signing with Yahoo in April to stream 180 baseball games that season. While this deal included many more games than the NFL deal, it didn’t drive as much excitement. Perhaps Yahoo’s declining fortunes had something to do with it.

The biggest challenge to live sports streaming in 2016 was latency. Imagine streaming a football game in your home and hearing your cable TV-watching neighbors cheer 30 seconds before you see the touchdown. It takes away the excitement, and that was the experience for many sports fans. Latency will always be an issue with live streaming, but companies hope to get it down to a tolerable 1 second or less. As 2017 begins, many companies claim to have a solution, but latency is still a fact of life.

In 2016, not all games streamed online were sports events. Both Facebook and Twitter streamed the three presidential and one vice presidential debates live, as did many news sites. Those clashes seemed to work best with a social media tie-in, as everyone could comment on their favorite lines. Variety reported that YouTube served 2 million concurrent live streams for the first debate.

As the U.S. shifts from one presidential administration to another, consider how far the online video world has come during President Barack Obama’s 8 years. In January 2009, Streaming Media editor Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen tried several methods of watching live video for the 44th presidential inauguration. CNN.com put him in into a waiting room with the message, “Hey, you made it! Unfortunately, so did everybody else.” He then had to install the Octoshape P2P player and Flash Player 10. Every site he tried offered stuttering and buffering video. Streaming Media columnist Paul Riismandel noted on his Facebook account that inauguration day reminded him that “the internet is not ready to replace broadcast TV.” Compare that with this January, when Akamai reported supporting 4.6 million concurrent viewers at peak for its broadcast partners. The live streaming seemed to have happened without a hitch. In only 8 years, the internet has replaced broadcast TV for millions of viewers.

As long as we’re looking back, let’s remember the mobile live streaming services that were ahead of their time. Remember Qik, which alpha-launched in 2007, beta-launched in 2008, and was still in beta when Streaming Media wrote about it in 2009? It worked fitfully and never found a large audience. Remember Viddy, which was valued at $370 million in 2012, and attracted Jay Z as an investor?

We offer this look back because people weren’t only watching live video in 2016, they were shooting it too. Facebook Live became a sensation last year, thanks in part to a savvy rollout strategy that started with limited celebrity access and then offered live video shooting to everyone. With its built-in social network sharing, Facebook Live instantly became a bigger deal than YouTube Live and Periscope. Brands and sports networks watched the platform’s growth and got in early.

Competition from Facebook Live forced Twitter to make a few changes. In May, it ended Periscope’s 24-hour expiration time for videos. In December, Twitter itself gained live video streaming. Alas, nothing moved the needle much, and Facebook Live seemed to own live video streaming at the end of the year.

Two niche areas continued to attract huge live video audiences during 2016. E-sports, led by Twitch and YouTube Gaming, regularly attracted millions. Amazon-owned Twitch says it serves over 100 million unique users monthly, while YouTube says 90 percent of all gamers turn to it weekly for gaming advice. Also, the young area of live streaming apps led by YouNow and Live.me attracted a large and largely young crowd. Attracting millions of viewers while still flying under the radar, these live streaming apps offered personal one-to-many broadcasts, where telegenic wannabe stars created live shows from the privacy of their bedrooms. Viewers rewarded them with virtual gifts that could be redeemed for real cash.

As 2017 begins, live video is accessible on every device, used by the biggest names in entertainment and sports, and highly popular. The only question is how big will it get in the coming year?

Live Video in 2017: The Experts Predict

To get an idea where live video will go in 2017, we spoke to two experts: Mark Peters, a partner with IBB Consulting Group, and Brett Sappington, senior director of research for Parks Associates.

Can Facebook stay on top of live video this year? Peters thinks it can. With its built-in audience checking in daily, and the ability to put videos directly in members’ feeds, it has a powerful advantage. Facebook doesn’t have to pull people in, because they’re already there. Expect Facebook to be a favorite of viewers and sports leagues this year.

Brands, however, are another story. Brands love advertising on Facebook, but after a revelation in September when the industry learned Facebook had inflated its video performance numbers, buyers have been more determined to get solid stats about how many people are watching and for how long. Ever a closed garden, Facebook has so far resisted opening access to viewer data, something that likely won’t change in 2017.

“I don’t know how much they’ll open up. Facebook knows the value of the data. I think that Facebook is going to want to retain control of that to be able to monetize that,” Sappington says.

Live video will gain viewers on many different platforms this year. Peters sees 2016 as a foundation year for live streaming, with an explosion of different platforms waiting to show what they can do in 2017. Last year was about learning what works in terms of marketing and packaging. This year, networks and publishers know how to attract an audience. He expects more live sports deals along the lines of CBS All Access streaming the NFL. Amazon will stream a lot of high-end premium sports, although the leagues might be niche rather than mainstream.

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