Up Periscope!

For me, the most interesting thing about last weekend’s boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao wasn’t who was the better fighter (I’m no boxing fan), but what it revealed about the powerful role technology now plays in our world.

This was a truly global event, and one that generated millions of dollars from fans around the world prepared to pay to watch the fight live. To attend the fight cost between $3,000 and $17,000, although tickets were sold out in one minute flat. Watching it live on television in the United States cost $89, or $99 for a high definition transmission, the highest amount ever for a pay-per-view event. Then, because of technical problems, the fight had to be delayed by 45 minutes. One can only imagine the cost of refunding people their money, as well as the damage to the brand image of cable companies.

The broadcast comes at a time when live streaming is more popular than ever. It’s been around for some time, but is being taken up by more and more people thanks to Meerkat and Periscope, both of which use Twitter.

The first enjoyed a rapid rise, underwent an ambitious $12 million financing round based on a $52 million valuation, but now seems to be languishing in the hope of a possible buyer turning up who believes in the future of live streaming. The latter was bought by Twitter and has garnered more than a million users in its first ten days, making it one of the company’s most promising products. A company, we might add, that describes its mission as “to give everybody the power to create and share ideas and information, instantly, without barriers.”

All that is required to access live streaming is to click on the application on your smartphone, allowing you to watch something that is either taking place in a boxing ring, or on your television screen. It was obvious that pay-per-view and livestreaming were going to collide at some point, and that moment was last Saturday night.

Many saw it coming, others tried to prevent it, but it was no use: while thousands of users were cursing their cable company for not being able to run its business properly, thousands of other people were watching the transmission from Las Vegas free through a live streaming application, enjoying the strange sensation of being in somebody else’s living room, or even sitting ringside.

Throughout the fight, several dozen points appeared on the map of the application retransmitting the fight live, the image quality of which was reasonable given the limitations of smartphone screen. As the retransmissions began to gain traction, and more people tuned in (some retransmissions attracted up to 10,000 people at a time), many of them sending hearts in gratitude, which of course alerted Twitter, which shut the retransmission down. In response, the people retransmitting the fight asking viewers to stop sending hearts.

For people watching the retransmission, the experience turned into one big party. For Twitter, it put Periscope on the map. CEO Dick Costolo sent this tweet after the fight:

Much of Periscope’s activity that evening was made up of retransmissions and comments on the event, and represents a resounding success. But as Variety pointed out, the real fight will now begin between the technology and entertainment industries over what is already being called “Periscope piracy.” The first round has clearly gone to Periscope.

So how should the entertainment industry respond to the supposed threat posed by live streaming? Does anybody really imagine that those who watched Saturday’s fight for free would have been prepared to pay otherwise? Can we now expect a tidal wave of estimates of lost revenue, or that Twitter will be forced to reveal the identities of those who retransmitted fragments of the fight through the application? Technically, preventing a retransmission of something like this is very difficult, and would require the use of ContentID technologies similar to those used by YouTube, with the added complication of managing them in real time. Doing nothing is an option, but it would only encourage the trend and the appearance of companies looking to make money out of using the channel to rebroadcast transmissions illegally.

The solution would seem to be to avoid making too much noise about the issue, as well as not getting into a fight with users, and in asking Twitter to exercise a certain amount of control over these kinds of retransmissions, and closing down anything that garners too much attention. But as for a Periscope policy, don’t make me laugh. There is no way to stop people from using Periscope, and what’s more, its impact on the bottom line of companies is minimal.

On a final note, perhaps we should give some consideration to the value proposition here that prompts some people to watch something through Periscope not to avoid paying for something, but simply for the novelty value or to be part of a major event. Perhaps this time round, rather than reaching for its lawyers and whining on about the money it isn’t making from it, the content industry can instead learn from something interesting and new, and save itself millions of dollars and wasted time.

But for some reason, I have the feeling that isn’t going to happen…

(En español, aquí)