Back in December, Cathy Johnson wrote a CST blog outlining the differences between TV Online and Online TV. Where TV Online represents the extended distribution of broadcast-first programmes across online platforms, Online TV refers to the way the overall television service uses both internet and television to make and distribute content that cannot be accomplished via traditional broadcasting practices. Using established British broadcasters such as Channel 4 and BBC as examples, Johnson points to the challenges they face in producing a coherent service that combines both broadcast and online programmes and content. Effectively, the main broadcasters – having dominated the form of television programming as well as the means of distribution – are now faced with competition from digital natives. These digital natives – companies operating as social media platforms, digital publishers or video streaming services (if not all three) – are more firmly established in the online spaces into which television increasingly moves.
Similarly, in a recent blog, Pat Holland reflects on BBC3’s shift from broadcast to online television. As Holland notes, this move was not so much prompted by a drive to meet young viewers on the digital and online platforms they prefer, but by a funding crisis that saw the culling of the channel as a necessary evil. The channel BBC3 had a coherent and stable identity and role, serving as a central hub of television that extended into other online and social platforms. In justifying the move online, BBC3 controller, Damian Kavanagh, has stated that it will allow it to be more innovative in developing new forms and to be better placed to quickly produce content for its audience. And as part of this 20% of the budget has been allocated to short form video that will be distributed across platforms such as YouTube and Facebook. Holland points out that this effectively turns BBC3 into a brand rather than a channel but notes that the key representation of this brand – the logo – is perhaps less sure of its identity.
For these broadcasters, the effort to inhabit the new online landscape has been like moving a juggernaut and it has inevitably been a challenge to re-situate themselves in an online market that has a number of digital native companies far better placed to develop the infrastructure and audiences that broadcasters are now seeking. However, for a time at least, broadcasters could retain their identity as broadcasters, even if this was somewhat complicated by their ventures online. Online TV services and content providers such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu might have encroached upon the terrain of traditional broadcasters but were not competing with the core service offered by broadcasters, namely, live broadcasting. Traditional broadcasters could also stake a claim in this market by offering live streaming of their programmes and events to viewers.
Broadcasters, as such, retained some unique qualities, insofar as, for the most part, they were the primary providers of live transmission, of the broadcast of live programmes such as sporting events, news and entertainment. Where digital native companies had attempted to compete via live-broadcast enabled apps, until recent years it has figured mostly as a minority practice and service. With live streaming app Meerkat, for example, users could both broadcast themselves and view that of others from their smartphones but the novelty of this was somewhat undermined by the limited audience the broadcasts tended to have. Twitch, which has equally defined itself as a live broadcast platform, is hugely popular, but again is limited by its niche identity as a video-game streaming service. Thus, where digitally native live streaming services were using the moniker of broadcaster, they lacked the infrastructure, industry, established form and audience of the mainstream broadcasters.
More recent live broadcasting services are, however, developing form and content that more closely resembles traditional broadcasting and are making their services available to anyone who wants to publish as well as view. Periscope, owned by Twitter, has positioned itself as a broadcaster of live events and news and has managed to ingrain itself in the world of traditional broadcasting and news publishing, with journalists and reporters from The Guardian and the BBC to E! Entertainment live streaming on the app. Further, in the same way that social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have become key sources of breaking news and updates of on-going events, Periscope has been able to more quickly broadcast breaking news on events such as the recent Brussels bombings.
As such, live broadcasting services, although still in their infancy, are benefiting from their association with established and hugely popular digital native companies, from the lack of regulation and editorialising that govern the main broadcasters’ practice and from the ease of use and concomitant speed of distribution afforded by social media platforms. This is an obvious cause for concern, since broadcasting has depended so much on establishing trust and authority and, in the case of many broadcasters, impartiality. That live streaming services use the term broadcaster not only challenges the role that traditional broadcasters have owned, but could potentially jeopardise the perception of broadcasting more generally. Already, there are concerns about the impact of the immediacy of live broadcasting and there is a growing trend of capturing awkward moments and blunders, as in the case of Mitt Romney’s remarks about the 47%, recorded and broadcast without his knowledge and potentially ruining his presidential campaign. While such live broadcasts might offer a more democratic and diverse representation not available via traditional practices, they are also more prone to sensationalising and risk turning broadcasting into extended real-time, real-life ‘you’ve been frameds.’
Such concerns are being expressed with Facebook’s venture into video streaming with Facebook Live, particularly in respect of the role it will play in distributing and monetising the content of traditional broadcasters. The social media giant adopted a slightly different strategy than Periscope, embedding the live broadcasts in its home app rather than as a separate one. Facebook initially only gave access to established broadcasters, brands and celebrities, thus avoiding the amateur quality and tone of many of Periscope’s live broadcasts. In effect, it set about establishing itself as a legitimate, quality live broadcasting brand and early adopters included BBC News and Al Jazeera English, both of whom used it to broadcast behind the scenes political and sports coverage. Where online video has typically served as an accompaniment to mainstream broadcast, the move of mainstream broadcasters to Facebook Live might signal the rise of a new form of broadcasting practice, one in which the traditional television brands distribute content on platforms facilitated and owned by social media giants. In distributing on Facebook Live, broadcasters such as the BBC lose a certain amount of contextual and editorial control and are subject to the algorithms that determine what video will be promoted.
A report from the Centre of the Study of Media and Communication at King’s College London this March raised concerns about the extent to which companies such as Facebook had become powerful agents of and within media and communications. Although Facebook identifies as a platform (and thus as neutral), it has authority over what and who can publish. This means that broadcasters no longer have the same level of control and authority over their content. When broadcasters use Facebook, they effectively defer control to the intermediary company. The BBC, for example, has little control over the commercial advertising that shares its news video feeds, with videos streamed on a Facebook user’s page situated alongside advertising banners.
Even further, traditional broadcasters are also facing competition from digital native companies for the rights to broadcast major events such as sports. Twitter, Facebook, along with Verizon and Amazon, recently bid for streaming rights to the NFL, with Twitter winning the global digital rights to live broadcast ten Thursday night games and behind-the-scenes coverage online. While mainstream broadcasters will retain the rights to advertising, it is significant that the social media platform is now moving in the same circles and broadcasting the same material as traditional broadcasters.
Traditional broadcasters have been preoccupied with carving out a space in Online TV and have sought to extend into digital while retaining their dominance of broadcast television. This has resulted in a distinction between broadcasting and online television, which has meant that broadcasters such as the BBC have struggled to define their digital identities and to establish what their online television services are. During this time, digital native companies have more quickly adopted the practices of traditional broadcasters. Their move to live broadcast, accelerating with the launch of Periscope and Facebook Live, evidences a more effective manoeuvre back across the digital divide. It remains to be seen whether Facebook Live will become a major force in live broadcasting but, if it does, the implications of this in regards to media control, regulation and ownership, will undoubtedly be the subject of much debate in the future.
Sarah Arnold has worked as lecturer in Film & Television and currently works for Axonista, a company that develops interactive video applications and services for broadcasters and online video providers. She is currently working on the book Television, Technology and Gender: New Platforms and New Audiences for I.B. Tauris. Her previous books include Maternal Horror Film: Melodrama and Motherhood (Palgrave) and the co-authored book The Film Handbook (Routledge). Her research focuses on viewing spaces and environments of, and within, television and film.