News broadcasters are set to invest in improving the audio/visual quality of their Facebook Live videos as the platform expands to allow for broadcast quality equipment to be used.
It is the latest development in the streaming platform’s continuing rise since it launched in December last year.
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Crucial to its popularity among outlets has been the decision by the social network to promote live videos above other content within each of its more than 1bn users’ News Feeds.
In a blog post in March, the company said: “Facebook Live videos are more likely to appear higher in News Feed when those videos are actually live, compared to after they are no longer live.”
It was a small change that sent a clear message to organisations keen to make the most of social media as a platform for sharing their content.
Younger viewers in particular are turning away from traditional broadcast news and towards social media.
According to the 2016 Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, half of the 50,000 people sampled said they used social media as a source of news each week. In the UK alone that figure was more than a third (35 per cent).
Ziad Elramley, a digital producer who is part of the social team at Al Jazeera, told Press Gazette: “There’s an incentive in that live videos get preferential treatment in the News Feed. So that’s really what drove the initial jump on to Facebook Live.”
While Facebook Live is still largely in its infancy, publishers and broadcasters have been quick to adopt it with the BBC News, Sky News, Al Jazeera and others producing content.
Elramley said: “From our perspective it’s another tool to provide unique access to our viewers.
“Instead of just talking and showing someone an article about the Calais refugee camp you can actually take them inside it, answer their questions and they can help direct where your video goes – so it’s not all selfish.”
Smartphones were the only devices through which live videos could be broadcast until last month when Facebook opened up its API (Application Programming Interface) development tool to the public, enabling the platform to go beyond its mobile device limitations and use video from professional cameras.
Said Elramley: “There’s a big push at Al Jazeera to make live videos broadcast quality. Not necessarily broadcast style, but high definition – not done on a phone – with good audio.
“We really want to raise the bar. The BBC does a great job, they do lives consistently and are in a lot of interesting locations.
“A lot of it is phone-heavy, so we’ve seen that they already have that niche and we want to take things a step further. That’s something we are working on at the moment.”
Sky News’ Audience Development editor Richard Evans told Press Gazette that while Facebook Live videos have been “primarily” created on mobile phones so far at Sky, the broadcaster is “definitely looking at steps to improve production values where possible”.
Since April, when Evans said Sky News began to “ramp up” its Facebook Live output, the broadcaster has had more than 10m views of its content (about 200 live videos in total). It now has a team of seven (soon to be eight) social media producers whose remit includes Facebook Live videos.
Facebook’s preferential algorithm may be playing its part in the rise of of live videos, but Evans said worrying too much about it will “drive you crazy pretty quickly”.
He said he prefers to focus on traditional content values, adding: “I have been in this job nearly six years now and I have learnt that if you create great content, regardless of what platform you’re on, it will surface.”
According to Evans, formerly senior news editor at Yahoo UK, the demand for live content has always existed only now, with the rise of social media and applications such as Periscope, it is more accessible.
He said: “For us, Facebook Live is two things really. The first is that it allows us to bring out the best of our journalism to a new platform. Sky News is traditionally a TV organisation at its heart but it’s becoming more digitally and mobile-first focused.
“Facebook Live gives us the best of both worlds because we are always in these interesting locations around the world, reporting on stories from Pistorious to Chilcot, from South Africa to Westminster.
“It allows us to really take our audience around the world with us and allows us to tell interesting and global stories that we cover on the global TV platform.
“Secondly, and where this is really key for us on Facebook and where it distinguishes it from any other platform that we are on, is the level of interactivity that Facebook Live allows us.
“Our journalists and correspondents are able, really for the first meaningful time, to engage directly with their viewers in real time.
“Since Brexit we’ve had loads of questions about the economy and politics and our audience, more than 5.5m Facebook fans, have been able to put their questions and concerns directly to our specialist journalists.
“So that really is what makes Facebook Live stand out from other platforms for us.”
As with any new tool, developing best practice means trial and error, with some clear standards already being set.
Said Al Jazeera’s Elramley: “I think interactivity to some degree is very important and it’s something that viewers now come to expect. So if you’re going to have a Facebook Live with no interactivity whatsoever there has got to be a very clear, very obvious reason why.
“For example, if it’s just a Facebook Live video taking a feed from the UK Parliament and David Cameron is giving a speech, people quite clearly understand that there’s going to be no interactivity.
“But if a publisher has a host and the host is there an they’re talking and there’s no interactivity, they’re kind of left wondering ‘Why am I commenting?’ and I have seen that qualitatively in comments.”
Both Al Jazeera and Sky News have experimented with streaming their channels on Facebook Live.
Said Elramley: “We have definitely gone from ‘ok, I’m making a conscious choice to go to my TV or laptop and sit down and turn it on and wait for the right content’ to ‘I’m already spending an hour a day on Facebook and in that hour this is coming to me when it happens’.”
However, before broadcasters can commit to a 24-hour stream, Facebook must first make some changes on its side, said Evans.
“If we were to just stream the channel live 365-days a year people wouldn’t find it,” he said. “There would be no one watching it in six months time because it will have fallen right down to the bottom of the News Feed because it wouldn’t be a new post really.
“We’re just hoping and waiting for Facebook to make their platform a little bit friendlier for a more permanent continuous live stream.”
Where Facebook Live has excelled is through its capacity to enable news organisations to go live relatively quickly, easily and inexpensively.
Phone broadcasts can be done with one reporter and, in the case of news outlets who already have reporters on the scene, this can be done not only quickly but to a high standard.
“Facebook Live is such an easy to use platform all you need is a phone and some internet connectivity it means we can pop up and do these Facebook Live broadcasts really easily,” said Evans.
Elramley said it is still “very early days” for the live video tool, adding: “I wouldn’t expect Facebook Live to look the same in six months.
“Anyone who says they have the formula for Facebook Live is totally lying because we are all learning, we are all experimenting, we are all learning from our own experiments and other peoples so it’s very much a dynamic product right now.”