Tonight, for the first time this fall, many millions of viewers will tune in to watch the Jets and Bills battle on Thursday Night Football. Many, even most, will watch the same way they’ve always watched football: on television. They’ll flop down onto the couch with remote in hand, or crowd into a sports bar with a pitcher of PBR.
But a few, or some, or maybe even a lot, will tune in a completely new way: by tapping on the Twitter icon.
If you watch the game tonight on Twitter, you’ll mostly watch a fairly standard video stream. There will be ads where there are always ads, and commentators where there are always commentators. Underneath it, you’ll see a stream of tweets, the best of Football Twitter curated for you by Twitter’s algorithm. Players, refs, reporters, self-hating Jets fans. It doesn’t matter whether you’re logged in, or you’ve ever used Twitter before. The experience will be the same for everyone at first, but eventually, Twitter plans to personalize the feed for each user. You can watch the game anywhere Twitter runs—on your phone; in your browser; or in Twitter’s new apps for the Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Xbox. Twitter’s even working on syndicating its video, so you can watch the game anywhere you can see tweets. Well, not quite yet: Twitter’s working with a few partners, like Sports Illustrated, but more are coming soon. We promise to embed football as soon as we can.
Twitter is already entrenched as a second-screen experience. Users will watch a sports game or an awards show on TV, phone in hand, tweeting and scrolling and faving. But it’s just one of a number of companies trying to turn that second-screen experience into a first-screen play. Merging live TV and the social sphere has proven tricky. All anyone knows is that it involves the Internet in some way. Now they’re working on how viewers find stuff to watch when the list of options is effectively infinite. They also need to build the necessary infrastructure to stream a live event to tens of millions of people simultaneously—your cable box doesn’t pause to buffer when it’s third and 10 and the ball’s in mid-air.
Tonight, Live on…Twitter
When the Thursday Night Football contract came up for renewal this year, it seemed obvious that the NFL would use the property as a testing ground for streaming. Amazon, Verizon, and others were reportedly interested, but Twitter won the deal despite bidding less than its rivals. Why? Because Twitter’s already the place people go when football’s on.
Even as its growth stalls and Wall Street sours on the company, Twitter is still the place people talk about what’s happening now. And big moments like the Oscars, the World Cup, and the presidential debates, are when the service is the most fun. “It’s a simple but very powerful idea,” says Jeremy Rishel, Twitter’s VP of engineering. “There’s a lot of conversation around Twitter, and it’s very engaging during these events. And you don’t have to be an expert Twitter user to understand the flow of that conversation, because during the context of a football game it makes sense.” Twitter has always been live. Over time, it’s also become more media-rich: from text to images, GIFs, Vines, and finally Periscope and full-fledged video. So for Twitter, the next step was simple: combine the conversation with the thing they’re all talking about.
Football is a key piece of the Twitter live video strategy, because, well, it’s football. But the plan goes much deeper. “We started in sports to go prove the model,” says Twitter COO Adam Bain, “but you can look outside of sports.” He points to Twitter’s live-streaming of the presidential conventions, and says he loved watching the real-time commentary and fact-checking right next to the event itself. The company has recently signed deals to stream NBA basketball, NHL hockey, and college sports from football to volleyball. It’s partnered with 120 Sports on a daily highlights and news show called The Rally. Bloomberg’s streaming a few of its shows. And Twitter’s surely going to host more events like the Suicide Squad premiere, because, come on, Red Carpet Twitter is insane. When I ask Bain how far down the rabbit hole of live video he’s willing to go, he just smiles, and says “I think it scales.”
The Fourth Wall
One of the shows coming soon to Twitter is from Cheddar, a new finance-focused video network that has dedicated itself to all things live. (Finance Twitter is huge.) So far, Cheddar’s primary distribution has come through Facebook Live, which Peter Gorenstein, the company’s chief content officer, says has fundamentally altered the way Cheddar makes its shows. “The instant comments and the instant feedback you have with your audience are huge,” he says. “It’s just a more interactive audience.” Cheddar hosts are constantly asking viewers to thumbs up if they agree with something, or leave comments. Everything is decorated in pastel colors, there are usually at least two things happening on the screen at once, and it all feels decidedly laid-back next to the highly polished shoutiness of, say, CNBC. Having the viewers in the room, even virtually, “adds an informal aspect,” Gorenstein says, “that’s very much in our DNA.”
Gorenstein is a longtime TV guy, having done stints at Fox News and Bloomberg, but he says he loves the flexibility the Internet provides. Right now, Cheddar does an hour-long show in the morning and another in the afternoon, but “if you have something going on outside the regular hours,” he says, “you can just go into the control room and say, can we go live right now?” Now that they can ping people’s phones and tell viewers they’re live, they can take the idea of a schedule a little more loosely. And if people miss it and come a few minutes later, they can either catch up or watch a replay.
The co-mingling of live and on-demand has shaped the evolution of Sling, one of Internet TV’s great success stories. Originally, it was very much a standard live TV experience, in which you flip through channels and that’s about it. But now, after a recent redesign, live TV isn’t the first thing you see when you open Sling. Instead you get a menu of your favorite stuff: channels, movies, TV shows.
The new interface, says Ben Weinberger, Sling’s chief product officer, is meant to completely blur the lines between live and on demand. “In a lot of the experiences out there,” he says, “the content is very siloed. You have one place where you go to find linear content, one that you go to to find on-demand content, and maybe another that you go to to rent or buy. But when you want to watch Game of Thrones, you want to find it in one place.” For sports, Weinberger is careful to note, live still matters. “That’s why we made it really easy for you to find your games,” he says, sorting things by sport instead of by channel. When you want to watch a movie, who cares what’s on now? Just watch what you want.
In some ways, it’s easy to make the case that only sports and world events need to be broadcast live. But there are lots of reasons live TV is valuable. For Twitter, it’s to give users a rallying point, something to talk about with also-interested strangers the world over. For Gorenstein and Cheddar, the goal is to provide the kind of ambient television that’s currently mostly lost to cord cutters. “Not everything is appointment viewing,” Gorenstein says. “There’s also a need to have TV on in the background.” Cheddar’s shows are hyper-visual, to help viewers figure out when they might want to crank up the volume and tune in. So much online video is destination-based: you have to know what you’re looking for, or risk wasting your movie-watching time flipping through Cerebral Scandinavian Movies on Netflix. Live, Gorenstein thinks, can bring back some of the effortlessness that makes TV so wonderful.
Everyone’s approach to live TV right now is slightly different, but all seem to understand the appeal. YouTube’s reported “Unplugged” service sounds like a mix of Sling and Twitter, grabbing both high-end and second-tier shows and then smartly pushing them to users. Hulu’s working on something similar, mixing on-demand and live content in a single place. And, of course, there’s Apple’s often-tried and always-failed attempt to get in the business. But when it happens—and it’s going to happen—it’s going to change how you watch TV, where you watch it, and even what you’re watching. Don’t worry, though: both Bain and Rishel promised that Twitter’s not going to screw up football.