Does “Live” Video Matter on the Web?

Nearly all of the online video successes in the past year or two have been of pre-recorded video content. YouTube as a primary example, but the dozens of other key moments in online video have been time-shifted non-live content, save perhaps AOL’s streaming event of the Live8 concert. This leads to the question – does glass-to-glass live video matter on the web?

Are the successes of pre-recorded content an artifact of where we are in terms of supporting infrastructure? Or are they a result of demand/consumption patterns? We can first turn to broadcast television for an analog analogy to frame our thinking. If you examine broadcast TV, there are three primary types of truly live content: news, weather, and sporting events. And of the first of these, news, how much is really truly live? In reality, the fading-in-importance nightly news is comprised of recorded segments pulled together and packaged by a live moderator. While there are a number of talk shows which are conducted and broadcast live, many of these are also taped and rebroadcast, still retaining their consumption value.

Moving from just a qualitative look to a quantitative one, Accenture analysis reveals that only 3% of broadcast television viewing time is actually live. Smaller than I would have anticipated, but perhaps “live” television is more salient so it seems like it should be larger. And there are many reasons why truly live will be even less on broadband than on broadcast. First, an increase the supply of long-tail pre-recorded content available and the discoverability of that content could draw viewers even further away from live broadcast. Second, the web affords alternative methods of communicating what was previously live content, like text headlines for weather and play-by-play summary with on-demand highlight clips for sports information.

Moreover, the current infrastructure trends appear to facilitate pre-recorded content – we’re in the midst of massive improvement in the price / performance of storage both in home and portable video viewing devices. Plus, while we have the potential to utilize P2P technologies for movement of pre-recorded files, existing broadcast models for delivery of live content broadcast don’t appear to be going away soon, as they largely meet the needs of the consumer (at lease in the home).

The counter argument here is that as an infrastructure becomes available to produce and publish long-tail live content – concerts, international sporting events, along with user-generated material – that it will provide a set of content to an audience that was completely unavailable under previous broadcast distribution architecture.

Perhaps what’s important isn’t that a program is truly live, but rather that it is near-live. Yes, there’s something intangibly special about having video actually live – Saturday Night Live is a perfect example in which the format wouldn’t work without it, but that’s likely an exception. These above illustrations direct us to consider the idea that being “nearly live” is good enough and that the live broadcast could become a legacy artifact. What matters is that video content is time appropriate. Content value generally deteriorates in value over time, but different types differ as to what degree. News has a short half-life, whereas some sit-coms live in syndication for decades. The transition to broadband video should resurrect a number of pre-recorded videos lost in the archives, but will it resurrect the golden age of live television? Talk shows where viewers call in and game shows with viewer participation necessitate at least the semblance of a live interactive session – but are these meaningful categories of content? It will be interesting to see what will be coming live to a laptop near you – maybe not much more than today.

(Thanks to Robin Murdoch of Accenture for helping me with much of the thinking and data behind this post.)

David Beisel

David Beisel is a co-founder and Partner at NextView Ventures. He has been focused on early stage Internet startups his entire career, both as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist. As an investor in the digital media space, David was most recently a Vice President at Venrock and previously a Principal at Masthead Venture Partners. Prior to becoming a venture capitalist, David co-founded Sombasa Media, an e-mail marketing company best known for its flagship product BargainDog. Sombasa was successfully acquired by where David served as Vice President of Marketing. David holds an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and an AB in Economics, magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, from Duke University. He also founded and leads the Boston Innovators Group, an organization which holds quarterly entrepreneur events drawing a thousand attendees.