The biggest tool at the conventions

July 19, 2016

Last time the Republican and Democratic National Conventions rolled around in 2012, live video coverage was almost exclusively the domain of news organizations. YouTube was the official digital live-streaming partner of the 2012 conventions, but neither Facebook nor Snapchat were doing video and Periscope didn’t even exist. The big innovation of the year was how digital and print outlets were using live streaming tools on their websites.

Four years later, the social media landscape has changed exponentially thanks to an explosion in social video on sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat. Now social platforms have set their sights on live streaming, and the 2016 conventions are shaping up to become a frenzied microcosm of the next era of live event coverage.

Facebook users are watching more than 8 billion videos a day on the service, according to numbers released in November. Snapchat surpassed that figure with a reported 10 billion daily video views in April. YouTube, for its part, claims to reach more 18- to 49-year-olds than any cable network in the US. Having conquered video, social platforms are partnering up with news organizations to deliver live streams from the conventions directly to users’ social feeds. As Crystal Patterson, Facebook’s head of government and politics outreach, told Politico last week, “This is the most engaged we’ve been at the convention, and it’s highly correlated to the fact [that] we have a lot of tools to offer.”

Until now, live event coverage on TV has been relatively immune to digital encroachment, but new tools mean networks can now expect to be challenged on that front, too, with some commentators suggesting they could spell the demise of cable news.

The advent of live social streaming comes at a time when TV audiences are shrinking and, as a recent report from the Pew Research Center suggests, the downturn could be set to increase in coming years as TV’s older audiences are replaced with younger viewers who prefer to get their news digitally. Until now, live event coverage on TV has been relatively immune to digital encroachment, but new tools mean networks can now expect to be challenged on that front, too, with some commentators suggesting they could spell the demise of cable news.

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This week, social media users can expect a mix of both original content produced with social streaming tools and live streams of existing TV coverage. In a futuristic example of the former, Twitter users were treated to The Washington Post’s “robot reporter” rolling around the convention hall Monday at lunchtime, streaming its encounters live via Periscope. On Monday night, The New York Times had a feed from the convention embedded into a Web page, accompanied by running commentary from four of its reporters. Although YouTube has been live streaming on desktop since 2011, the company only launched mobile live streaming on June 23. It’s partnering with a host of YouTube personalities to stream convention coverage created with the new tools. But the major push in the arena of original content creation comes from Facebook with its Facebook Live lounge. Facebook’s 22 media partners will be live streaming from the lounge in scheduled slots throughout the day, using cameras connected to Facebook Live’s API on a set reminiscent of a TV talk show. Non-partners will have access during dedicated walk-up periods.

CNN and The New York Times both plan to use the space. “We actually have a very, very extensive social, digital, off-platform play at these conventions,” says Samantha Barry, senior director of social news at CNN. Facebook Live will be key to that play due to the platform’s potential for real-time interaction with the audience, she says. For example, Christiane Amanpour, who will be dedicating herself to explaining the US elections to a global audience, will take questions from viewers around the world in real time on the CNN International Facebook page. “Everything we’re doing across all of these platforms is to meet the audiences where they are,” says Barry.

Interaction is also cited by the Times as a key part of its live-streaming strategy. The Times alone has created more than 400 Facebook Live streams since April; its most popular streams range in coverage from breaking news to nature scenes and cooking with celebrities. “What they have in common is the priority we place on involving our audience in the content,” says Louise Story, the Times’ executive producer of live interactive journalism. A video published last week showcases the magic that can happen when publishers get creative with audience engagement in live streams. “Fragments of a Life: A Curbside Mystery” is an oddly compelling 10-minute documentary showing what happened when Times reporter Deborah Acosta came across a bag of old, abandoned slides in the street and live streamed her search for the photographer, using the live audience to aid her investigations.

During the conventions, the Times will be live streaming a morning briefing from around the convention and a lunch program in the Facebook Lounge at specific times each day. “We’re really excited about these,” says Story. “They’ll be regular things the audience can expect, but like we do in any big story, we’ll be nimble.”

The format is clearly popular with viewers, who watch live video on Facebook three times longer than other kinds of video on the platform. But regardless of how audiences engage with digital live streaming, the long-term question for news organizations is whether these new tools will help bring money into newsrooms. Right now Facebook allows monetization of Facebook Live videos through branded content, but the tool is still too new to gauge how lucrative it may ultimately become.

Some organizations are live streaming their existing TV coverage straight to social media. This approach provides networks with exposure to a larger audience and adds another dimension to the conversation that already takes place on social networks. A spokesperson for CBS says that’s part of the thinking behind a deal with Twitter to live stream the network’s TV coverage on the site, alongside a curated feed of tweets. The partnership is similar to live streaming deals Twitter has made recently with the NFL, Wimbledon, and Pac-12 Plus to live stream sporting matches, and with Bloomberg to stream several of its TV programs. The financial details of the Twitter deal with CBS were not disclosed, but the deal with Bloomberg involves a revenue-sharing agreement between the two parties.

YouTube and Facebook will also be live streaming TV content. HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, a show that’s usually hidden behind HBO’s paywall, will stream free convention specials to viewers on the program’s YouTube page. Meanwhile, PBS NewsHour and C-SPAN will stream their TV coverage via Facebook Live. In contrast to Twitter’s offering, in which streams disappear once they are complete, anything live streamed on Facebook automatically becomes a video-on-demand on the organization’s page. Facebook says about two-thirds of video views occur after the live broadcast has ended.

When asked if digital will soon compete with TV for audiences, CNN’s Barry is optimistic about TV’s staying power. “Honestly, I think they’re different audiences and they’re different experiences,” she says. She could be right. At least one viewer of Twitter’s Wimbledon live stream–Variety’s New York Digital Editor Todd Spangler–described the user experience as a “distracting mess” and suggested that “live video coupled with a stream of unfiltered Wimbledon-related tweets simply doesn’t add up to more than the sum of its parts.”

The upside of live streaming is the amount of choice available to viewers, who can watch the conventions in the formats they prefer. The downside is the potential for audience fragmentation, which could adversely impact advertising revenue. Considering how rapidly journalistic tools have evolved in four short years, it’s hard to imagine what the media landscape will look like by 2020. For news organizations, the only strategy is to adapt as audiences adapt. “Wherever those audiences are, we will be,” says Barry, adding, “If you’re doing the same things on social platforms that you were doing six months ago, you’re probably doing a bad job.”

Shelley Hepworth , formerly a CJR Delacorte Fellow, is Technology Editor at The Conversation in Australia. Follow her on Twitter @shelleymiranda.