Media

Why the ‘Live Web’ is the new TV

What does “live” mean when we talk about content on the Web? We think of most Web content in terms of on-demand rather than live, but that is really more of a false holdover from how we consider our traditional media consumption. If we shift our perspective, we can see in the Live Web one of the most substantial opportunities for content publishers and consumers since the initial rise of mobile.

Traditional TV and radio are “live” because when you turn on the device, you instantly receive a video and an audio stream, respectively.  The Live Web is similar, except that it is composed of any content or experience that has first been made available to the user at a singular point in time.  To narrow it in more practical terms, I define the Live Web as consisting of content that goes through three stages – being upcoming, then live and finally on-demand (or off the Web such as sales or live stream only events on ESPN3.com).

While the most visible components of the Live Web are live streamed video events, such as an MMA fight on Ustream.tv, the live simulcast on Bloomberg or the presidential debates on multiple sites, the Live Web is also an auction on eBay, an audio session on ESPN Live, and a chat session with editors of Travel and Leisure on Facebook.  Much like TV, wherein a lot of the content is actually pre-recorded content that is made available at a certain point of time, the Live Web also has content such as the articles on this site or an on-demand video on Hulu that was pre-prepared and then goes live on the Web at some point – they are all part of the Live Web.

The big difference from traditional television is that a lot of the Live Web isn’t scheduled or, if scheduled, hasn’t formally instituted a schedule.  So, the Live Web is all around us.  We just usually aren’t aware of it because it hasn’t been surfaced for us – we don’t know what we don’t know we’re missing.

The Live Web is the new ‘TV’

The Live Web represents the next frontier of content and technology convergence – the Live Web is the new TV (and by TV I mean traditional broadcast consumed via a unifunctional TV screen).

We are moving from a world where the classic definition of TV being a static device with access controlled by a set top box (STB)/antenna is changing to a digital environment of connected screens where the users can determine what content is displayed on the screen.  It’s a shift from passive to active media consumption.

Is the Live Web bigger than TV?  Absolutely.  First off, the continued progression of TV Everywhere, whereby authenticated subscribers to cable or satellite services have access to their cable video content on most connected devices, is going to result in TV becoming a virtual subset of the Live Web.  This will happen within the next two years.

Now add to that all of the content outside of the traditional broadcast providers —  such as Felix Baumgartner’s record breaking skydive on Oct 14, which at 8 million concurrent live streams on YouTube represents a massive live audience, and with very little advance promotion.  Classic TV programmers would kill for that type of audience in the current broadcast environment.  Finally, add in all the non-video content examples from above and you see that there are millions of daily events on the Live Web.

Visible progress of the Live Web can be seen in the YouTube Live initiative whereby they set aside $100 million for original content creation.  It’s the first step to seed what could ultimately be a new online programming wheel with YouTube as the distribution platform.

The current cable/satellite infrastructure is limited in the number of channels it can accommodate and you have terms such as “rollouts” and “carriage agreements” to get to increasing levels of household penetration.  There are about 100 million US households and even 100% penetration of them does not mean you get 100% of the household’s time. Compare that to YouTube users who can access YouTube content 100% of the time via their cell phones, tablets, computers and connected TVs due to the ubiquity of connectivity today and the lack of geoblocking or windowing on most of its content.

Maker Studios and Machinima have hundreds of “channels” – they couldn’t do that on the traditional cable platform.  Hence, it’s clear to see the Live Web will eventually accommodate thousands of channels as a subset of these YouTube channels adopt a linear format for a segment of their content (more on why they will do that later in this post).  As John Chambers of Cisco said, “there will be one million TV stations in the U.S.” because the Internet-connected mobile devices enable easier video production and consumption.

Sites ranging from Facebook to Huffington Post are making “Live” a standout item across their main navigation. Likewise, CNN Live and ESPN3 are examples of leading mainstream Web and traditional platforms making significant forays into the Live Web.  Ustream has more video streamed per minute than YouTube has uploaded per minute.  eBay has millions of ongoing auctions at any point in time, while we have seen the growth of scheduled sale sites like Gilt Group and Vente Prive.

Back in 2000, Gemstar-TV Guide bought SkyMall because it saw an opportunity in emerging T-commerce as a result of its position on digital TV with the Interactive Programming Guide (IPG).  Fast forward to today and you can see how T-commerce will play out on screens – except that it should be called C-Commerce for connected screen commerce.

It’s the natural outcome of exposing contextually relevant options while the user is consuming content – in this case on a connected screen.  It’s all a part of the Live Web.  Whereas TV and radio are for the most part stand alone platforms, the Live Web provides the true choice to the digital consumer – what they want, when they want it and how (where?) they want it.

Why does time matter on the web?

The Web can be, and is, both on-demand and live/real-time. Asynchronous content consumption by consumers is the current norm. And in the foreseeable future that will be continue to be the case.  However, all content isn’t created equal and there is a segment of content that lends itself especially to live consumption.

Certain content can only be consumed live, such as an auction or sale – once it’s over, it’s over – or content that is time or quantity limited (e.g. a live streamed concert that is not available on demand and for which only a certain number of “tickets” are sold).  You have to be there live.  There is other content for which the consumption experience is degraded ipso facto, much like a bottle of red wine once opened.  Sports and, to a lesser extent, news are the two classic content categories that are hard to time shift.

The recent outcries over the Summer Olympics in London are a prime (time) example of the problems and possibilities opened by the Live Web.  Though the events in London were taking place throughout the day, prime time schedules here in the U.S. dictated when they would shown on television and, to a large extent, their “official” access to viewers on the Web.

For those of us even marginally connected online during the day, however, preserving the suspense and drama of waiting to watch the events on television became an Olympic feat in its own right.  Medals were celebrated on news sites, controversies debated on social networks and memes arose and disappeared all before the actual events had made it to their prime-time airing.

When the content doesn’t automatically speak to Live, Web publishers would do well to take a chapter from the producers of American Idol or The Voice and convert passive consumption to active engagement. American Idol created faux interactivity on a one-way medium to create a live ratings juggernaut.  The live experience is significantly enhanced when there is any measure of interactivity and that is a key advantage of the two-way capability of the Web to traditional unidirectional content broadcasting. We have seen what it can do for entertainment; imagine the use cases in education, medicine, and commerce.

The other significant macro factor that has amplified the importance of time on the Web is the ubiquity of connectivity. According to an October Pew study, 50 percent of U.S. adults now have a smartphone or tablet, and tablet ownership alone has doubled since last year to 22 percent.  Global estimates put smartphone penetration at 10 to 15% and growing, while news consumption is growing as 43% of the users reported increased overall consumption.

In other words, the user is no longer tethered to a TV or PC to consume content, and likewise, content is all around us.  I, the user, can finally consume content when I want to (the where is irrelevant and the what is simple – everything).  It’s my choice, and I want the option to consume live if I want to.  Which means that publishers need to provide us with the options so we can determine if we want to time shift any content.

Finally, the “digital watercooler” makes almost all content a now experience.  You can’t wait until tomorrow for the spoiler alert in the office.  Pausing the live stream of the Presidential debates meant having to forgo reading Bill Maher’s tweets or the rest of the Twitter #debate comments in order to avoid spoiling the live experience, and precluded actively participating in the then current conversation.  Being one minute behind prevents one from getting the most out of the two or three screen experience.

For significant live events, the two-screen consumption experience (TV and tablet or smartphone) is becoming more commonplace, creating a digital watercooler of immediate response and reactions so that events such as the landing of the Mars rover, Curiosity, take on a new urgency and excitement online — could Bobak Ferdowsi’s mohawk have made him such a sensation without that live and instantaneous reaction?!

Why the main participants should care

All of these elements of the Live Web have significantly impacted the way we think about content as consumers, yet publishers of online content are frequently still struggling with these notions.

The ubiquity of connectivity now means that publishers and producers have not only a much larger potential audience around the globe, but as importantly, have a much larger addressable time with those audiences. While we often get distracted by the number of potential users that the Web opens for content, time is the truly revolutionary shift that the Live Web precipitates.

Advertisers will pay a higher CPM for an audience delivered at a certain point in time. It’s why the networks fight so hard for shows like American Idol and why they get such a premium.  Controlling messaging by time can be even more important for the Web because you can actually “day part” a user.  A particular user is more likely to purchase content at a certain point of time just as they are more likely to consume video during lunch time or at the end of the work day.

When I was at TV Guide, we would see major spikes in traffic on TVguide.com before and around 5pm EST and PST as people checked the TV listings online to determine what was going to be on TV later that night before they left work.  Similarly, the scrolling guide on the TV Guide Channel would see spikes in traffic a few minutes before the top and bottom of the hour as people clicked over to it to see what was going to be available for the next thirty-minute slot or at the end of an hour long show. That’s why it was so important to reach viewers at the point of decision making during that time slot, and what gave rise to in-grid advertising on the IPG.

Similarly, if you can provide an audience to an advertiser at a certain point in time when they may be more likely to undertake a desired action, the advertiser will pay a premium.  Just as all content and audiences aren’t created equal, neither are audiences at certain points in time.

Online publishers are still largely locked into conceptions of Web content within the context of on-demand, and thus are missing the opportunities that lie in recognizing content’s preceding facets.

In an age where established online content publishers and producers are struggling to build viable businesses and generate the kind of residual value of content that television forged, the opportunities that arise from the Live Web, from understanding the importance of time, really can’t be ignored.

Understanding the Live Web would allows publishers to create digital prime time for their content, create an outlet for content that can’t find a place in their traditional programming wheel, and create a direct and recurring connection with their users instead of leaving the discovery of their content to search.

And that’s valuable to us as consumers as well. When our options for discovering great new content are left to proactively finding what we already know about, or limited to the top links of an online search, we don’t know what we’re missing.

TV image via B-A-C-O/Shutterstock

Sanjay Reddy is CEO of OVGuide. Previously, he was CEO and Co-Founder of Live Matrix and served as head of business development, strategy and M&A for Gemstar-TV Guide International. Sanjay is a digital media expert who has advised a range of new media companies including MyDamnChannel; Pixsy; BuddyTV and TVersity; and has served as a member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences’ Interactive Media Peer Group’s executive committee.