For years, Netflix had to fend off questions about whether it would ever be interested in live video, especially sports.
Re/code’s Peter Kafka acknowledged as much when asking Netflix’s content chief Ted Sarandos that very question on the company’s latest quarterly earnings call.
“There is no interest in live sports currently,” Sarandos replied.
But what about “live” in general?
“There’s not a technological reason that we wouldn’t want to go to live,” Sarandos explained. “Our brand proposition is very much about on-demand. To the extent that watching on-demand is better than watching live, we bring a ton of value to it.”
This places Netflix at odds to a lot of the tech industry now.
Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg seems to be very much in love with the social network’s new live video feature, and is reportedly trying to cut checks to stars to get on the platform. Twitter, which owns live-streaming app Periscope, recently struck a deal with the NFL to stream Thursday Night Football. Facebook was in the running.
But Netflix has firmly aligned itself linear TV, or making people watch a show at a particular time. And the whole point of “live” is saying, “You have to watch this now.”
Netflix doesn’t want this. It wants you to be able to binge-watch anything you want, whenever you want.
Analysts at Barclays have theorised that eventually, as streaming takes over TV, content will split into two models. The first is event programming: sports, awards shows, musicals, news. These are spectacles that lend themselves to live. The second is Netflix-style on-demand programming. They see the entertainment hub of the future as being a combination of both.
Netflix, for its part, seems to want to stick firmly to one side of that equation.
“Other people doing ‘live,’ I think it’s great,” Sarandos said. “It’s about a further expansion of internet television to include live. We don’t have to do everything, to be part of that expansion.”
While Netflix brings different a different value to the table than social giants like Facebook and Twitter, its anti-live stance is worth considering.
Live can be inconvenient
Live video can be “raw and visceral” as Mark Zuckerberg has described it, but it’s also inconvenient. Having to watch something “now” or miss out is annoying. You can’t always drop everything next time BuzzFeed decides to blow up a watermelon.
And yes, you can watch the replay but it’s not as fun, particularly since live broadcasts tend to feel meandering and unedited. They aren’t exactly optimised for later viewing.
To work, the virtues of a live video product have to outweigh the annoyance. And unless it is a spectacle, like a sports game, the fact that “it’s happening right now” doesn’t feel like enough.
Mark Zuckerberg seems to think Facebook’s secret weapon will be interaction.
“Live is like having a TV camera in your pocket,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a Facebook post. “Anyone with a phone now has the power to broadcast to anyone in the world. When you interact live, you feel connected in a more personal way. This is a big shift in how we communicate, and it’s going to create new opportunities for people to come together.”
We have seen different types of interaction tried in live video apps from Periscope to Meerkat to YouNow, with varying degrees of success.
Facebook has said that people comment 10 times more on Facebook Live videos than on regular videos. Now it remains to be seen whether the company can build a compelling model of interaction that makes live video an integral part of people’s Facebook routine.