Over 45 minutes on April 8, a pair of increasingly excited BuzzFeed staffers wrapped a watermelon in rubber bands until it exploded. Live video of their project on Facebook racked up some 800,000 concurrent viewers and more than 300,000 comments. It may not be the Future of TV, exactly, but it's the Future of Something. Just what is the subject of debate.
In a process that began narrowly last summer but suddenly seems poised to explode a watermelon of its own, Facebook appears to have made the Live initiative its biggest priority since pouring everything into winning mobile a few years back. First, it let celebrities like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson stream themselves live, then everyone else. In March, it changed its algorithm to show live video more often in the news feed. This month, it made live video interactive with viewer reactions such as likes, and made it prominent with a video hub on the mobile app. It now has live video running in more than 60 countries and counting.
And last week at its F8 conference, Facebook opened the gates to streaming from any device, including drones and high-definition cameras. It was a big advancement that means more high-quality live video, from branded content to news to sports, could run on the platform, making Facebook potentially a bigger rival to both YouTube and traditional TV.
"The future of media will be about immersing people and putting them at the center," said Fidji Simo, the director of product at Facebook overseeing Live video. "When we think about Facebook Live, it's thinking about, how do we make it so that people can interact?"
"The goal is to get Live into as many hands as possible," Ms. Simo added. "We're focused on making broadcast more engaging and fun."
Marketers are cautiously optimistic. "Brands are going to have to figure live video out," said Pete Blackshaw, global head of social and digital at Nestlé. "It's going to take learning, discipline and testing to figure out what's the sweet spot from a brand perspective. From a consumer perspective, a lot of people are testing it and there's no question about the stickiness of programming and the reactions. But whether that translates into brand opportunities, we'll have to see."
Several brands have been experimenting already. Chevrolet partnered with Facebook to use Live to launch its new Bolt EV model at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. Southwest Airlines used Live from its command center as a major winter storm was hitting. And Kate Spade used Live to broadcast its New York Fashion Week show.
Facebook says it doesn't see its Live push as competitive with TV. There have been a number of cases where TV journalists, for example, have gone on Live after their traditional broadcast to expand on a story they were covering, Ms. Simo said. There's also no ad play to tempt TV marketers. The focus now is on the user experience, not advertising, according to Ms. Simo.
Just don't be surprised when the focus expands. "The proximate interest is really just retaining users and increasing their use through the course of a given day," said Brian Wieser, senior analyst covering advertising, the media and the internet for Pivotal Research Group. But Facebook has already begun paying publishers to feed Live, ensuring that amateur video is complemented by the kind of professional content that might draw larger audiences and, one day, greater advertiser interest.
"If they invest heavily in premium content, they're better able to get TV budgets," Mr. Wieser said.
There has already been a grab for live sports on social platforms. Twitter just secured its first braodcast deal with the National Football League and will stream Thursday Night Football games during the 2016 season. Facebook had also been interested in streaming NFL games, though it backed out of conversations, reportedly because it preferred its live videos be commercial-free and did not like the NFL's traditional advertising model, according to Bloomberg.
Others are wondering about the true value of live video, particularly as DVRs and services like Netflix create a huge tide in precisely the opposite direction, toward viewing on demand.
Certain live events are successful, but there may not be a big demand for premium live content beyond that, said Ian Schafer, founder-CEO of Deep Focus. "The push for live is bizarre because there's not really much precedent outside of sports for there to be any kind of money to be made from streaming live video," Mr. Schafer said. "Streaming video, yes, but with live, there are probably more failures than successes. There's not much that indicates to me that a generation that's going mobile is going to be doing more live-show watching."
TV networks would add that their audience figures mean a lot more than even impressive "view" counts. In a release last week crowing about the ratings for "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story," FX tacked on a swipe at BuzzFeed's recent stunt on Facebook Live: "And for those who are wowed by exploding watermelons, other online video phenomena and the sheer enormity of the digital metric—a 'view'—'The People v. O.J. Simpson' has delivered the equivalent of 259.0 billion (with a B) views AND counting!"
With so much content flooding Facebook, its algorithm will be key to Live video's success. "To me, the future is live video watching and commenting on one platform, where an algorithm is showing you what it thinks you care about," said Jason Stein, founder-CEO of Laundry Service. "The algorithm helps organize and find the content you care about. The worst thing about TV, after commercials, is the fact that there are hundreds of channels and they're not organized well."