March 29, 2016

An Inconvenient Truth

Two unrelated stories caught my eye this week and got me thinking more about live video. The first was news earlier this month that Meerkat has given up on live streaming and is going to try and pivot to being a social network for video. The second story was Fox’s latest live musical, The Passion, which tried to offer a modern take on Holy Week via a combination of live performances and pre-taped musical videos. The production seemed to veer between ambitious and just plain strange (Seal as Pontius Pilate singing “We Don’t Need Another Hero” from Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome?), with ratings down more than 40% from Grease Live just two months ago.

What do these two stories have in common, and what does it tell us about the future of TV? One big insight…

1. Live Video is a Lot Harder Than You Think
I have been in the video space for almost two decades now, and one thing has not changed. People are endlessly intrigued by the concept of live. Live video carries with it an immediacy and presence that is missing from on-demand content. As the Legacy TV audience goes into long-term secular decline, providers like Fox are circling the wagons around live content in an effort to hold onto as much of their audience as they can. Meerkat, for its part, thought that live video would create a massive new Twitter-like platform on which individual users could use smartphones to broadcast their lives for free. (Unfortunately, Twitter thought the same thing and acquired Periscope before Meerkat could ever achieve critical mass). One could add many other examples across the entire video industry value chain of companies and projects where the secret sauce is (invariably) ‘live.’

What’s interesting in both the Meerkat and Fox cases, however, is the dawning recognition of just how difficult it is to create compelling live content outside of sports. (This is one of the main reasons sports rights are so incredibly valuable, as TDG has pointed out on numerous occasions.)

Meerkat CEO Ben Rubin was shockingly transparent on this point in his public Blog post about Meerkat’s travails, admitting that “One thing we have learned is there is a very high emotional cost to being entertaining in a live format.” In other words, ‘live’ is very hard on the individual broadcaster. Entertaining other people in real-time with no do-overs is emotionally exhausting and very few people can do it consistently well. The audience’s expectations are very high, and most attempts on Meerkat simply didn’t meet those expectations, which means the audience goes away and the ad-based business model collapses. Whatever one thinks about the wisdom of this pending pivot, you’ve gotta hand it to Meerkat for laying out the difficulties presented by live video in such an open fashion.

Fox’s challenges with respect to The Passion were not laid out quite this explicitly, but were no less telling. The Passion was fundamentally a collection of musical performances. The acting was fairly minimal and served mainly to connect the songs together. The songs, in turn, were new versions of existing popular music presented in a new context. Importantly, the audience was not familiar with the production going in and did not know what to expect. This is very different than the Sound of Music or Grease, which consisted of songs so familiar that probably half of America could sing along with no prompting whatsoever. As a result, Fox decided that some of the songs needed to be ‘soundtrack’ quality (i.e., recorded in a studio with unlimited takes, and professional mixing and editing). By presenting these songs as prerecorded videos, while Fox may have achieved its goals with respect to musical performance quality, it significantly undercut the whole premise of a live show. Performers who lip-synch at their live shows are making the same basic trade-off and run the risk of even harsher backlash.

Expect more difficulties and controversies like this going forward. The unstoppable forces pushing TV to produce more and move live content (i.e., “If it’s not live, linear programming no longer works”) are crashing into the immovable object that is live programming itself. The inconvenient truth for the Legacy TV industry is that live content production is expensive (all that cost for a single on-air performance), difficult, and exhausting for all involved. Last, but certainly not least, live content is extremely high risk. All the hard work in the world is not going to save the production if the audience just doesn’t get it, or a missed note or a left shark suddenly goes viral and overshadows the entire performance.

People love silver bullets. I get that. Many folks in the video industry want to believe that ‘live’ is the magic cure for what ails them. As Meerkat and Fox are learning, however, producing (non-sports) live video that audiences will embrace remains very difficult, and definitely not for the faint of heart.

Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.

Joel Espelien is a Senior Advisor for TDG and serves as an advisor and Board Member to the video ecosystem and technology companies. He lives near Seattle, WA.

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