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Live Streaming of Large Events: Is it Worth It?

With the earthquake in Haiti dominating a large part of the recent news cycle, and with many movie, music, and television stars banding together to perform for donations, it's not surprising that the "Hope for Haiti Now" telethon raised more than $61 million when it was broadcast last Friday. With a cumulative audience of more than 83 million viewers, averaging more than 24 million viewers in the United States alone, and over 1.9 million video streams during the live broadcast, the telethon was a resounding success.

In the wake of other announcements, though, including the one that several key news sites may begin charging for content access, a question is looming large over the streaming industry: Are large-scale live events worth it? In other words, are they money-making or money-losing propositions?

That's the basis of an article I'll be writing for the April/May issue of Streaming Media magazine, which will come out just prior to the National Association of Broadcasters show, arguably the largest show of its kind to focus on live broadcast. I welcome insights from content creators who do live events, regardless of the size of the audience or production budget, but I'd like to use a few current events to lay the groundwork as to why this discussion is even relevant.

Let's look back at the Hope for Haiti telethon. While it was seen by 1.9 million live streaming viewers and attracted approximately another 6 million on-demand views over the subsequent four days, streaming of the event was somewhat of an afterthought. As with the upcoming Olympics, which will have IP backhauls in place for traditional over-the-air (OTA) and cable networks, the Haiti telethon was already being broadcast on numerous traditional channels.

Bright House, one of the seven largest cable MSOs in the U.S., had it on more than forty channels, with a press release noting it would be carried on "ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, CNN, BET, The CW, HBO, MTV, VH1, CMT, PBS, TNT, Showtime, AMC, CNBC, COMEDY CENTRAL, Bravo, E! Entertainment, MSNBC, National Geographic Channel, Oxygen, G4, CENTRIC, Current TV, Fuse, MLB Network, EPIX, Palladia, SoapNet, Style, Discovery Health, Planet Green, CNN en Espanol, HBO Latino, Logo, MTV2, MTV Tr3s, MTV Hits, VH1 Classic and VH1 Soul."

In other words, for anyone who wanted to watch it via traditional OTA or cable television, there was no way to miss the telethon. And the small majority of live streaming viewers who have a desktop or laptop but not a television is infinitesimal.

The one bright spot is mobile viewing: More than 150,000 mobile streams—and more than 100,000 downloads of "Hope for Haiti Now" iPhone app—have been used to drive the message of hope forward for those who may not have access to OTA or cable television.

Still, there are other examples of live streaming that may just barely be breaking even - at least for the hardware and software manufacturers. Dan Rayburn's blog post about yesterday Swarmcast's troubles is timely, as Rayburn points out that Swarmcast's largest customer is MLB.com, making Swarmcast vulnerable to any decision on MLB.com's part not to use the technology going forward.

In the last few weeks, I've begun to hear increased rumblings from those in both the CDN/infrastructure and live streaming production space, as they find themselves competing against cloud storage or delivery and broadcast production teams, respectively, in a quest to win business. One of the reasons is the simple model of economics in designing a live streaming delivery system capable of serving up unicast streams to TV-sized audiences.

So, obviously, questions abound on the topic of live streaming, and I'm looking forward to the challenge of getting to the bottom of what could be considered a very touchy subject in our industry.

In conclusion, let me leave you with one other example: The Grammy Awards, which will air live on January 31, will not be streamed live. As Mashable, which did a very thorough interview with Evan Greene, the chief marketing officer of the Recording Academy, points out, the decision not to stream the Grammy Awards live online is a joint decision between the Academy and CBS, which has the television broadcast rights.

Yet the Grammy Awards will have a significant amount of live streaming leading up to—and during—the actual event.

"For 72-hours before the Grammy Awards air on CBS," Mashable's Christina Warren writes, "Grammy.com will be streaming live performances on its website that are ancillary to the awards themselves plus . . . online red-carpet streaming. During the Awards themselves, Grammy.com will feature backstage interviews with winning artists, . . . so even if Grammy isn’t ready to embrace online streaming of the award ceremony, they are at least aware that fans are likely to be online Tweeting or posting to Facebook during the broadcast. That’s a start."

Warren may be on to something: the use of live streaming around the event, rather than as part of the event itself, coupled with the augmentation of social media. It's worth exploring as part of the upcoming article.

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