The Interwebs have been buzzing this week about the devastation that Periscope and other live-streaming apps might soon wreak on the entertainment industry. The panic stems from the widespread use of Periscope, Meerkat and the like to watch the much-hyped welterweight title bout between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and a secretly injured Manny Pacquaio.
If Hollywood thinks the problem is bootleggers pointing smartphones at TV screens, it hasn't been paying attention. The bigger threat posed by live streaming apps is that they'll offer viewers something more compelling than the next "CSI" spinoff.
Think back over the past 15 years. Tech companies have repeatedly offered new ways to distribute content online, and those technologies have drawn "high value content" (that is, unauthorized copies of songs, movies and TV shows) like metal shavings to a magnet.
Some of them, such as the original Napster, seemed purpose-built for piracy, and they were sued out of existence. But other new distribution platforms, such as YouTube, were at least as useful to those creating content as to those copying it. They often drew lawsuits too, but eventually the pirated content became less important than the original productions that took advantage of the platform's tools.
The live-streaming apps fall into the latter category. We are in the very early days with Periscope, Meerkat and the like, so it's not clear yet what sorts of content they'll give rise to. There's a lot of "here I am look at me" streams at this point, recalling the days when people would tweet about what they were eating. There's also plenty of broadcasts that resemble the fare on public-access cable channels, such as lectures, how-to talks and community events.
The same could have been said for original content on YouTube back when it was just getting off the ground. Now, however, the streaming site is home to countless video producers, many of whom have joined forces with like-minded video makers to form multi-channel networks. The top 35 of those networks, according to the SocialBlade site, have a million or more subscribers.
In other words, over time YouTube has become less of a crapshoot (or piracy hub, although there's still plenty of that) and more of an organized, reliable source of original content. Recognizing the opportunity, major entertainment companies are competing for viewers on YouTube alongside the upstarts and independents. They're also snapping up the talent that the platform is incubating.
Today, there's no apparent organizing principle to the content produced with Periscope, Meerkat and their ilk. Unlike YouTube, they aren't even destinations, really; to find a video, you have to search for a link on Twitter (or subscribe to someone's streams). If you arrive after the live stream ends, too bad! There's no ability to replay (yet). Similarly, there are no recording capabilities built into the apps, although third party developers have stepped into that breach.
Nevertheless, the volume is heavy. Twenty to 30 new Periscope feeds were popping up each minute on Twitter (which owns Periscope) as I was watching Wednesday afternoon. In the time it took me to write two paragraphs, 184 new streams came online.
The first things produced with new technology often imitate the things produced with old technology. For example, early television shows resembled the sports, news and variety shows found on radio. So it's not surprising that one of the first things that Periscope and Meerkat users are doing is pointing their lenses at TV screens -- for example, at HBO and Showtime's pay-per-view broadcasts of the big fight.
We can argue now about whether these streams will reduce copyright owners' revenue or serve marginally interested viewers who weren't going to pay anyway. We can argue about whether Periscope et al. should be required to look for and block bootlegged streams, or just to take down streams on copyright owners' request (which is all the law requires, The Times' editorial board argues). We can even argue about whether it would be better for copyright owners to deploy anti-piracy firms to take down pirate streams, or work with Meerkat and co. to monetize the bootlegs with advertising?
But as YouTube has shown, chances are good that illegal copying with the new apps will be reduced to a sideshow in the long run. Way more interesting things will come from live streaming apps once people figure out how best to use them. It's those things that will challenge the entertainment establishment, siphoning off the public's time and attention bit by bit.
Here's an example. Stephanie Wei is a freelance sports journalist who had been covering the PGA Tour. During a practice round for a recent tournament, she decided to use Periscope to give fans an insider's view of some of the tour's top players during a practice round. Spectators are permitted to take videos, after all, so she figured it would be OK.
Wei chronicled her experience on sports journalism site the Cauldron. Not only did she stream video of players hitting shots and bantering, she also used the app to let viewers interact a bit with Australian pro Matt Jones, relaying the questions they posed and his answers.
"Fans loved it," Wei wrote. "I received extremely positive feedback. I remember one person saying, 'This is exactly what Periscope was invented for,' and another asking for 'more stuff like this!'
The PGA did not agree, and it yanked Jones' credential for the rest of the season. In hindsight, Wei says, she sees that she violated a rule barring members of the media from shooting video during official days of an event. That rule is meant to protect the networks that pay the PGA for the rights to air tournaments. But as Wei and her defenders argue, what's good for the networks isn't necessarily good for the PGA.
"For the PGA Tour or any other sports league, the use of Periscope shouldn't be seen as a threat, but rather as a secondary medium to boost the viewing experience," she wrote. "What I did ... was only to give fans what they wanted and increase engagement and interest in the tournament."
The PGA appears to recognize this; it's now using Periscope for its own behind-the-scenes streams.
Therein lies the test for HBO, CBS and every other traditional TV network. Live-streaming apps remove the barrier to entry to broadcasting, and the interactive nature of the medium allows for an experience that TV simply can't replicate. Imagine a "Meet the Press" that took questions from anyone, not just a same old group of talking heads. Imagine watching an invitation-only concert from the perspective of everyone in standing in front of the stage with a smartphone. Imagine telling the cameraman to look to the left, and having her do so.
There are far better ideas than these, no doubt. Advances in technology will spur innovations in content too (don't forget virtual reality streams, because they're coming).
Meanwhile, generations of people being raised to consume (and produce) content online, on devices much smaller and more portable than TV sets. They'd rather watch videos of people playing video games than most of the networks' prime-time fare. Those consumers are the ones not signing up for cable, the ones searching Twitter for #Periscope and #Meerkat instead of checking the TV program guide.
The real challenge posed by live streaming is "people not doing what is supported by traditional television ... [and] peeling eyeballs away from traditional TV," said Jim Burger, an attorney at Thompson Coburn who's spent years working on digital-media issues.
It's easy to imagine some people becoming very good at producing live streams, he added. And just as advertisers have been drawn to YouTube's popular multi-channel networks, so, too, are they likely to flock to live streamers who amass an audience. "Where there's people willing to watch," Burger said, "there's money to be made."
After trying in vain to shut down YouTube and other on-demand streaming sites, the networks have adapted to their presence in the market. We may now be at the start of the very same process with live streaming, although for the sake of Periscope, Meerkat and company, it would be great to skip the lawsuits and go straight to the adaptation.