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Periscope Piracy – a knock-out punch for Pay TV?

The much hyped Mayweather vs. Pacquiao fight may not have not lived up to its mega billing but the piracy debate it has fuelled about live video streaming sites Periscope and Meerkat may yet turn out to deliver a spectacular knock-out punch to the Pay TV networks…

Firstly, in case you haven’t heard of Periscope/ Meerkat, here’s a little cheat sheet… they are both live streaming video apps that link to users Twitter accounts to enable them to either broadcast or watch live video from around the world. Periscope is actually owned by Twitter (bought for circa USD 100 million last year) and Meerkat, err, isn’t (and is kind of penalised in terms of access as a consequence). Simple, right?

So what’s all the fuss about then? Well the screening rights for the #maypac fight were owned by the likes of HBO and Sky and they were charging around USD 99 for the privilege to watch the much anticipated bout. So imagine how pissed they were when various live streams of the matchup were being screened simultaneously (and illegally) by a multitude of ever resourceful users on both Periscope and Meerkat.

From the various news reports on the matter you would have imagined that more people had actually viewed the fight on their smartphones than via a cable subscription. The reality? It probably represented a tiny fraction of the total audience. According to Periscope CEO, Kayvon Beykpour, the platform received just 66 takedown notices during the boxing match. Roughly half of those were closed down almost immediately and the remainder were ended before they got around to shutting them out.

Beykpour scoffed at the furore created during his speech at TechCrunch Disrupt a few days later when he said that there were more articles written about the problem than there were actual pirate streams themselves. True that. And clearly I’m just adding to the hype with this piece. Hey ho.

Still we are talking about the genesis of the medium here and it does beg the question as to whether live streaming represents a genuine threat to the TV paywall model going forward. Obviously illegal live streams of major sporting events have been available on the web for ages. The difference is though that those pirate sites take considerable effort and resources to set up. Added to that, consumers have always been wary of those sources as they will invariably try to charge the user or they bombard you with a tsunami of vile pop-up ads / malware.

What Periscope and Meerkat have done is effectively lower the barrier to entry, so that pretty much any amateur with a smartphone and the downloaded app is capable of becoming a personal broadcaster of much sought after content. What’s more, they have zero motive to make a fast buck and are basically broadcasting for kicks. Napster anyone?

Rich Raddon the co-founder of ZEFR (who built the technology that finds copyrighted materials across all of YouTube) commented via The Wrap on Bloomberg: “The ‘social share’ has become the most powerful form of modern distribution, and any growing video platform faces the same crucible: What can be done about the sharing of copyrighted material? Trying to simply block consumer uploads is not an option; we’ve learned that for every video that gets pulled down, 10 show up in its place. Copyright in the digital age has become an ongoing battle between content owners and users who employ progressive and innovative technologies to illegally share content.”

Rich goes on to say “the advent of digital technology, which makes it so easy to share – and even easier to find – content, copyright law is ill-prepared to deal with the modern media landscape. Rights offences happen in all forms and we will continue to see more issues arise.”

The major media conglomerates know that the owners of Periscope/ Meerkat don’t wish to bite the proverbial hand that feeds them and as such they will do what they can to prevent piracy. In the very early pre-Google/ pre-ZEFR days of YouTube the service played fast and loose with copyright as they pursued the rapid growth of their user base. Twitter is smarter than that and understands that it relies on traditional media for access and advertising dollars. Plus it has probably worked out that at some stage down the line, it could run concurrently with these major broadcast events by supplying complementary content, like backstage access, which would potentially provide its own revenue stream.

The ultimate barrier to rampant piracy though, according to Beykpour at least, is the quality of the technology itself. He reckons that people are prepared to pay a premium for high definition live content that they can watch on their expensive 4K curved screen TV sets. “Nobody wants to watch ‘Game of Thrones’ on Periscope,” he claims.

Sure, who wants to watch a shaky, grainy low resolution live stream on their smartphone? Hmm. The kind of people who want to save USD 99 on watching a pretty dull boxing match, I reckon…

Steve Blakeman

Steve Blakeman is the Global Media Lead - Nestlé at Mindshare. Previously, he was the Managing Director - Global Accounts, OMD Europe. Previously, he was the CEO, Asia Pacific – OMD. Prior to that, he was Global Chief Integration Strategy Officer (Asia Pacific) for IPG Mediabrands (Initiative & Universal McCann). He has also had stints as worked as Managing Partner at Omnicom Media Group owned media agency, PHD where he successfully launched their second office in the UK. He began his career at JWT and has over two decades of experience in advertising, media and marketing communications.