In 1953 the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey in London was watched live by millions of people around the world. Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon in 1969 represented not just a giant leap for mankind, but also for global television audiences. Hundreds of millions are estimated to have gathered around television sets to view the sketchy black and white images beamed across space. In 1986, when space travel was achieved by a shuttle, millions watched live the horror of the explosion of Challenger just 73 seconds from lift-off, killing all on board.
Television proved time and again it could cover events which were not only newsworthy, but also historic. And where viewers could see history unfolding before their very eyes, giving a front row seat to stories, ceremonies and events that people would talk about and write about for years to come.
Live from the scene of the story
For decades, technology has been making television equipment ever smaller, driving down the cost of live broadcasting, and - in the last few years - giving anyone with a decent smartphone the opportunity to stream live.
It has changed so much that live television is seldom extraordinary for viewers any more. The wonder of the 1950s and 1960s has been replaced by expectation. An event happens somewhere far away from the viewer, and they can reasonably expect to see video pretty quickly. But more than that - these days the viewer will not be surprised when the video is, in fact, live from the scene.
While not every event is live, an increasing number of stories unfold before a camera. Professional equipment that allows a camera operator to stream video in high definition using cellular technology is getting more reliable. The rollout of 4G across markets will allow more consumers to stream events from a cellphone in high technical quality - though often with shakier camerawork than a viewer might enjoy watching. All this increases the opportunities for live news coverage.
Thanks to the Internet, the viewer is these days enjoying more opportunity to watch live video of their choosing. Tablets, mobile phones and computers mean there are more events available, giving the viewer ever more choice of what to watch, and when to watch it. As technologies develop and cameras proliferate, soon we may be able to choose between multiple live events in any given hour of the day.
Rolling news is something we have all become used to - it’s the common grammar of television news around the world.
But the availability of live means that viewers can engage with stories in a compelling way. What would have been a news package in a bulletin can already be presented differently. The live feed from a story - whether or not anything is actually happening - gives the audience a front row seat to events.
British newspapers streamed video on their websites showing the front door of a central London hospital for days before the birth of Prince George in 2013. This AP video attracted high audiences because the stream empowered viewers: the anticipation of being able to witness events for themselves, keeping watch over a scene where something was certainly going to happen. Viewers themselves chose when to turn to the video stream, not a producer sitting in a control room of a broadcast studio.
The relentless bombing of Kobani in 2014, a Syrian town under siege by I.S. fighters, just a few miles over the border from Turkey, was a key focal point of the war in Syria for weeks on end. Live video of this scene showed massive black smoke plumes unfurling over the town, while the rumbles of explosions and the crack of gunfire could be heard. This went on for hours of each day. If viewers wanted to know something of what a war looked like and sounded like, this was it: slow, sporadic, unending.
Live coverage shows the real pace at which things unfold. Sometimes things happen in an instant. But usually developments occur over hours and days. Where the breathless reporter package injects energy and narrative, the live signal can show things in a very different light. It’s not to say one presentation is wrong, and the other right - both approaches fulfil different needs. But live coverage of events over many hours is now possible where it was not before.
This “slow news” coverage, watching things unfold in real time, is another way that audiences can choose what they watch. They might not get the entire context or story (and almost certainly will not) but they will be able to witness something themselves, or just get a sense of the scene.
Viewers themselves chose when to turn to the video stream, not a producer sitting in a control room of a broadcast studio.
New challenges and opportunities
But what do news providers do when multiple news events are happening at the same time? For more than a decade we have prioritised one live feed over another with the reassurance that we can return to an abandoned feed should anything happen. But our customers today tell us they want choice, and need to be able to give their own audiences a selection of stories in real time.
So we have built the capability to offer simultaneous live coverage to our customers so that they can do the same for their audiences.
Meanwhile, technology continues to provide new opportunities for live, and new angles and perspectives on events. Small cameras capable of high definition, drones, and cellular bandwidth are developing quickly. Our job is to keep up with the change, innovate with the way we tell stories, and to offer the best possible selection of live stories to our customers.