Go ahead. Blame the watermelon.
An early Facebook Live milestone was when BuzzFeed staffers dressed in hazmat suits wrapped rubber bands around a watermelon until it exploded. That piece set a very high bar for the new platform in both stagecraft and audience.
A stampede towards live video followed, putting us all on Facebook Live, Twitter’s Periscope, or our own sites or apps, desperately seeking our own watermelon. But while audiences crave an authentic and fresh video experience, it seems like they’re still getting a lot of pundits and reporters simply talking at them.
That’s unfortunate. Without dismissing the thought and effort the industry put into it, live video in 2016 trended towards the ordinary. To some degree, that’s understandable. Those of us not hitched to a broadcast outlet are trying to figure out effective pacing; we’re still calculating how many minutes are enough or too much; and within that there’s a general lack of opportunities for the truly memorable instead of gratuitously gonzo.
Look, the reasons to get into live video are many. The technology and tools are cheaper than ever; quickly finding and engaging a large audience is easier than ever; and reporters and editors are often eager participants because video helps them develop personal franchises. The most important reason, though, is because our viewers now demand it as much as sports fans want the Super Bowl and pop music masses want the Grammys.
So what must happen in 2017? We have to master the technology and choreography of the entire live process, from planning to production to notifications. And we need to keep working with and improving the tools we’re using to do it. That will help make the first few minutes of a live video segment seem less like an on-camera fire drill, and make it easier to introduce ad units and other commercial elements.
We also have to stop talking about the news so much when we go live and start showing our audience far more of what’s actually happening — whether it’s a protest, a street musician, or a blizzard. The popular live videos that came from regular people and citizen journalists involved a serendipity for which it’s difficult to plan.
While traditional TV news must program an entire day — and often rely heavily on predictable partisan chatter — live video right now is about creating a few moments that make a day memorable. The target must be for news organizations to exploit our unique abilities to provide stirring visuals and actual insights to turn breaking news into these moments.
At Reuters, for instance, our global reach has put our Facebook Live audience aboard migrant rescue boats off Sicily and gave our Reuters TV app viewers dramatic realtime sights and sounds in the midst of the failed coup in Turkey. In these scenarios, the images carried the day. Some of our planned chats or live events have been very watchable and drew worthwhile audience.
Thinking strategically about unique programming goes hand-in-hand with the ways we’re going to have to monetize live video anyway. It won’t be much different than many current content models: use speed to get programmatic-type revenue with big traffic and more custom ideas to get premium advertising from a distinct base.
On election night, Reuters TV simulcast to our app and Facebook Live about seven hours of mini-shows delivered intermittently from eight locations without using a satellite truck or other massively expensive gear. And for fun, we also ran a Facebook Live over the course of the night in which a Brooklyn artist assembled life-sized 270-piece puzzles of the candidates as results came in.
The night was hard, took extensive planning, and involved drawing in talent from across our organization, and it was more than worth the effort because we both served loyal viewers on our platform and introduced ourselves to a larger audience on Facebook.
How often we deliver this kind of programming will be the difference in whether live video remains a side gig or becomes something our viewers can rely on every day for great moments.
Dan Colarusso is is executive editor of Reuters TV and Reuters.com.