Live broadcasts are the crown jewels of video content.

In the US, live video of the type epitomised by huge sporting broadcasts such as the superbowl draw audiences in the millions, against which broadcasters can sell ad space worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per second

The right to distribute that content sparks huge bidding wars, such is their value to broadcasters, in addition to being the cornerstone of most cable subscription packages. For The Atlantic, Derek Thompson says:

“By my rough calculation, if you pay $90 a month for cable, you are paying about $76 a year (about 7 percent of the total cost of cable TV) just for the NFL.”

But as audiences have begun to move online, the value of that live content has arguably begun to wane. So what can broadcasters do to reassert that value, and what are the lessons for publishers outside the US?

Changing distribution

Technological limitations meant that, for a long time, live broadcasts were the preserve of television broadcasters. As the capabilities of internet platforms have increased, however, that’s begun to change.

For starters, the companies with the rights to live sports broadcasts are beginning to distribute that content through over-the-top OTT services. Both ESPN1 and ESPN2, for instance, are available through the satellite TV company DISH’s OTT service Sling. As the Washington Post pointed out at the time, that’s a huge deal as it signifies a possible sea-change in how live sports are distributed.

Additionally, the WWE Network has recovered from initially poor subscriber numbers to deliver growth in subscriber numbers for its OTT offering – largely because of the access it offers to its live events. As Blake Oestriecher writes for Forbes:

“Though the current subscriber count of 1.1 million is a slight 13 percent dip from where it was at the end of the first quarter, that was to be expected with WrestleMania, WWE’s flagship pay-per-view, taking place during that quarter.

“The truly encouraging sign for the WWE Network subscriber count is that it jumped to an average of more than 1.2 million subscribers for the second quarter of 2015, a 31 percent increase from the first quarter and further proof that the WWE Network has some much needed sustainability.” 

Content diversification

As the means of distribution have evolved, so have the types of content that are broadcast live. 

Amazon’s acquisition of video game streaming service Twitch for nearly $1 billion was as a result of the audiences that now watch those streams. Hundreds of millions of unique views take place on the platform every month, and it shows no sign of slowing down. Twitch’s CRO Jonathan Simpson-Bint, for instance, told TheMediaBriefing in May that:

The average user is watching people play for 104 minutes a day. These are the people who’ve moved away from traditional broadcasters.”

Both the Xbox One and the PS4 allow a user to stream directly to Twitch.

But as noted in this article from Wired‘s David Pearce, there’s a ‘sleeping giant’ in the world of livestreaming video – YouTube:

“So far, the Internet’s biggest video site has stood silently as Periscope, Meerkat, and countless rumored products from Facebook have made livestreaming video into a powerful new medium. But YouTube has the infrastructure and the audience, and now it’s deciding to focus on live video. It’s the sleeping giant of livestreaming, and it’s finally waking up.”

The Google-owned video streaming service has had the capability to consistently stream video live since at least the London Olympic Games in 2012. It has since done the same for more mundane sporting events – that still have enormous audiences – and is launching an app dedicated to streaming gaming video on mobile:

Mobile manoeuvers

As the latest Ofcom results have demonstrated, more households in the UK now own a smartphone than a desktop device. As a natural consequence of that, many people are now consuming longer-form video content on their mobile devices. 

According to the IAB:

“36% of smartphone video viewers surveyed say they watch long-form videos (5 minutes or longer) daily or more frequently, as compared to 58% of respondents who say they watch short videos (under 5 minutes) at that level of frequency.”

 Just as the technology that makes it possible for broadcasters to distribute live video took a while to move across to internet platforms, it’s also taken a while for individuals to have the ability to do it themselves.

But that’s all changing. Samsung’s high-end smartphones now offer the ability to stream content, live, directly to YouTube. That’s on top of the rise of Meerkat and Twitter’s Periscope, the latter of which now has over 10 million active users

Additionally, we’re seeing legacy media companies investing in the livestreaming video game. Huffington Post, for instance, is launching a millennial-focused live video series called HuffPost Now, through the livestreaming service YouNow which receives 100 million user sessions a month:

“A whopping 90% of YouNow’s consumption happens on mobile devices, and 70% of the audience is under 24, Mr. Sideman [YouNow founder and chief executive] said.”

Why livestream?

The Washington Post article about HuffPost Now provides a clue as to why livestreaming is so popular, especially on mobile:

“Viewers can make comments and ask performers questions, which appear in real-time alongside live videos.” 

That chimes with what Twitch’s Simpson-Bint told TheMediaBriefing is the reason users are spending nearly two hours a day on the streaming service: User engagement driven by the gratification that comes from interactivity. Twitch’s live chat functionality, for instance, allows users to communicate with the streamer as well as their fellow viewers. 

That’s similarly backed up by what live video aggregator Livestream’s CEO Lippe Oosterhof said at the Global Editors Network summit earlier this year. Speaking about why livestreaming is only taking off now, Oosterhof explained:

“This content is interactive. The livestreaming element is just an enabler. All the other apps were not able to do that.” 

There are, predictably, issues with livestreaming that need to be ironed out. Not everybody has the mobile coverage yet, there’s an oncoming storm over rights issues and the same immediacy that is a draw for many wholesome users also enables toxic behaviour towards those who stream

But evidently live content is just as much a draw as it ever was, albeit for different reasons as advancing technology has redefined the relationship between broadcaster and audience. Live video especially is appealing to younger audiences, who are increasingly seeking it out on their mobile devices.

But as the IAB found, broadcasters have watched as their audiences found the means to distribute content online themselves, thus becoming competitors rather than audience members:


Image courtesy of the IAB Research: Mobile Video Usage, A Global Perspective – See more at:

Rediscovering scarcity

As digital media consumption continues to grow, bringing ad spend along with it, those broadcasters could be seeing live video, once the crown jewel and centrepiece of their monetisation strategy, slip away from their control. 

For publishers and broadcasters, the mantra has always been to post content where the audience lives, rather than expecting them to come to you. So as that audience moves into mobile livestreaming, why aren’t more broadcasters doing the same

Despite all the changes in distribution and content type, the inherent value of live video remains the same: Scarcity. By its nature live video is transitory; there are only so many events happening at once that can attract truly huge audiences.

And although the type of content audiences are choosing to watch live has changed, the huge valuation of Twitch and potential of YouTube’s live apps demonstrate appetite for live content remains strong.

Livestation’s Oosterhof suggests “if you have a live engagement with your audience that’s the best place to place ads”, and broadcasters and publishers have resources beyond those of the public which allow them to invest create live video of a high quality and the brand recognition that allows them to potentially cover those huge audience-baiting events.

If broadcasters can parlay those advantages into engagement with their livestreams, they might be able to retain their crown jewel.