Facebook's Obsession With Live Video Will Be Short-Lived
July 28, 2016
Last year, the Wall Street Journal initiated a subtle change that only media wonks would notice. But it’s one that bodes poorly for Facebook’s latest obsession.
The Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper renamed “WSJ Live” as “WSJ Video.” That change came after the Journal canceled three of its live programs, rendering its video offering less “live” than before. There was precedent for such a decision. The New York Times killed TimesCast, its own live video programming offering, in 2013. The Washington Post also scaled back its PostTV in 2014 and Politico and Business Insider also abandoned live video programming efforts.
You could argue that those three top-tier media companies were merely too far ahead of the market. Since Facebook has been aggressively pushing Facebook Live this year, maybe it’s time for news organizations and other publishers to give live programming another look.
I beg to differ.
Though Facebook is clearly hell-bent on making sure Facebook Live will get a running start, I predict it will end up in the graveyard of previous obsessions including Facebook Credits, Paper and Deals. This isn’t a reflection of Facebook’s lack of might but of the inherent limitations of live video.
Originally Published By:
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously gives himself a personal challenge each year, ranging from learning Mandarin to writing daily thank-you notes. This approach is evident in the business sphere as well. In 2015, the mission may have been to make video prevalent in the News Feed (mission accomplished!) This year, it appears to be to make live video prevalent in the News Feed.
At this year’s Mobile World Congress, Zuckerberg told the audience in Barcelona that live video “gives people more intimate environments and more raw environments where you have a reason to just be yourself. It doesn’t need to feel like it’s super curated.”
In its second-quarter earnings on July 27, Zuckerberg said that he is convinced that video will be the primary way people share in five to 10 years.
Facebook’s attempts to promote Live include the controversial decision to automatically notify users whenever a Live video gets posted and, most recently, paying creators to experiment with Facebook Live.
In some cases, Facebook doesn’t need to open its wallet — the mere idea that Facebook has deemed something important is enough to prompt media organizations to hastily jump on the bandwagon and reorient themselves around live video, as we’ve seen with Facebook’s other past experiments. The Huffington Post, for instance, recently restructured its video production unit to favor social media distribution. Digital travel and food publisher Tastemade is set on doing 100 Facebook Live videos a month. Refinery29 has created a 10-person team dedicated to Facebook Live.
Such experimentation has led to some successes. Most notably, In April, BuzzFeed drew 807,000 viewers with a live telecast featuring an exploding watermelon. And of course Chewbacca Mom brought our fractured country together for a brief transcendent moment in May.
Aside from those instances, I would bet that, if you’re like me you never watch all these live videos. If you do, you probably find that they’re quite boring. It turns out that there’s something to be said for being super curated.
Why live video is a non-starter
August media organizations like The WSJ, the New York Times and the Washington Posthave learned firsthand about the limitations of live video. Now, Facebook is as well.
Consumers’ distaste for live video can be seen in the erosion of so-called linear TV. Simply put, the idea of gathering around a TV at 8 pm or 10 pm is becoming increasingly antiquated. The exceptions are sports and awards shows.
While those type of events provide a reason to tune in at a certain time, watching your idiot friend ramble on about Donald Trump isn’t exactly Must See Video. In fact, I’d venture to say that any video that could be run live would be much more enjoyable if it was edited and canned.
By contrast, the lack of editing often makes live programming an amateurish and gruesomely boring affair. As Politico mused in a 2014 postmortem on live video journalism, “creating compelling television, it turned out, meant more than putting talking heads around a table. It required millions of dollars, new innovations, and, most important, experienced producers and compelling on-air talent.” Or as Business Insider Founder Henry Blodget recalled, live interviews on BI looked like “bad CNBC.”
Destined for the scrap heap
Proponents of Live might argue that since Facebook is making a big deal about live video that media companies will soon get up to speed. The stats show that the novelty is wearing off though. BuzzFeed’s more recent Live videos have gotten views more in the 100,000 range, though we should note that Facebook considers anything over 3 seconds a view. If you saw an autoplay video in your News Feed and didn’t scroll fast enough, then you saw it.
As views continue to trail off and users grow impatient with updates about Live, Facebook will eventually downplay the offering. Live will continue to exist, but the company will be onto other things. In 2017 maybe Zuck will focus more on getting VR going.
The rest of us, meanwhile, will look back on 2016 as the year of the great Facebook Live Experiment. We’ll fondly recall Chewbacca Mom and that exploding watermelon and remember the days when people thought people would actually tune in to Facebook to watch video at a designated time.
For Facebook, it will just be one more commendable experiment that didn’t pan out. For publishers, it will serve as another warning not to base your business on someone else’s experiments.