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Standards & Practices Meet the Reality of Livestreaming

There are some who say, and I believe them, that this is the golden age of content. There are more fabulous, smash hit new Broadway musicals than I can remember in my lifetime. Networks, cable channels, and over the top services are delivering new and innovative content all the time. Consumers have instant, easy access to nearly all of this content and significant pockets of it are extremely good. Sure there’s also more useless stuff than ever before too, but the viscosity that held the cream on the bottom of the glass is disappearing.

To top all this off, interesting new platforms are being created for content producers to create and distribute their wares. YouTube, Facebook Live, Snap News, Instagram and Twitter are all highly accessible distribution platforms. It’s true that so far it has been really hard to make money on these platforms, but that hasn’t stopped a number of folks from dedicating their waking hours and their livelihood to creating content and building audiences in the hundreds of thousands or even millions.

What differentiates recent online content is that much of the content starts out as live and that is a significant issue and one the creators may not be entirely prepared to manage.

I’ve been around production for my whole life and live content is a special breed. There’s nothing quite like being in a live network control room when some 30 million people are tuned in. There’s an energy and adrenaline rush that’s almost addictive. The programming can be more exciting and organic. It’s often more credible and timely than the pre-recorded versions. Those characteristics are part of their appeal on new, socially-driven platforms.

But, there is risk. From the earliest days of blogging and social media chat, there have been issues brought before the courts. It’s a complicated legal area. There is no reason to expect this won’t bleed over to live streaming. As Facebook quickly learned during 2016 when dozens of acts of violence crossed its “airwaves,” live content can go very wrong. Perhaps less extreme, but on live TV there’s always the chance that some wardrobe malfunction will occur or some artist will test the limits of their middle finger or their mouth. There’s risk of libel. For this reason, many shows on more traditional distribution platforms run the show through a delay box (take WWE Raw for example). The steady finger of a lawyerly censor type is always poised at the ready to defocus or silence the nasty parts.

Why do broadcasters do this? Historically, it was mostly to protect FCC licenses—those fines can really rack up. But there was a larger, unspoken reason; reputational risk. There is a line between being edgy and pushing audiences into boycotting a show. 

Social media platforms that are valuable for distribution can also instantly become a wellspring of pressure from the advertising base. The live interactivity with the audience means the chat thread alongside a livestream can become a torrent of negativity. Celebrities and brands can be quick to react with punitive action when they are inadvertently aligned with something that makes them uncomfortable. The recent flight of Disney and others from internet sensation PewDiePie is just one example of how things can quickly go awry. No producer wants to be dealing with dialing down anger from his or her audience.

These new platforms also change who is a broadcaster. As leading brands move from quick streams to more program-style offerings online, they want to know that their brand is being protected. In addition to simply looking for audience size, they’ll be turning to professionals who can deliver infrastructure and production professionalism to the medium, while maintaining the perceived spontaneity and casualness that makes internet culture so resonate with target demographics. Rest assured, they will be holding their professional broadcast and production partners responsible when trouble ensues.

We don’t have the FCC licenses on the internet, but the distribution platforms are not blind to the risks. Picture your live stream with a flasher or an errant finger, and then enjoy these few snippets that might put your hard-gained distribution at risk and set your standards and practices senses tingling:

· “You will not post content that: is hate speech, threatening, or pornographic; incites violence; or contains nudity or graphic or gratuitous violence.” Facebook terms.

· “You will not post content that contains pornography, graphic violence, threats, hate speech, or incitements to violence.” Snap terms

· “You may not post violent, nude, partially nude, discriminatory, unlawful, infringing, hateful, pornographic or sexually suggestive photos or other content via the Service.” Instagram terms

There’s no FCC policeman to keep livestreams in check with standards and practices. For many in this space, the cost of full time lawyerly oversight is prohibitive. But, the risks are real. The revenues may not be as great right now, but for some people it’s their entire income. For many companies the allure of generating live content is outweighed by the risk of something going wrong. That is, of course, until something impacts their brand. Sponsors care, more than you can imagine, and will pull out before you can say “Bill O’Reilly.”

So, you read it here first. The days are coming when the internet needs new live television censoring systems. However, we cannot do things at web scale by applying broadcast economics. When programmers are struggling to make money on-line, adding bodies and costly tech is really out of the question. We need to think about the problem in a different way and find a modern approach to the solution.

Much, much more on this to follow…

(PS. I’ll be talking about this and other issues related to turning the 3 Billion Smartphones into compelling and economical points of content acquisition at NAB 2017, Tuesday April 25th at 2:30PM PT in the Debate Theatre, Booth SU10404.)