Conferences pivot to streaming channels: 'We look at this as having our own Netflix'
Live events may not return for a long time. Here's what could replace them.
Photo: Courtesy of Adam Shane
This weekend, close to 100,000 people from around the world were expected to flock to Vegas to attend the NAB Show, the broadcast industry's biggest annual gathering. With Vegas shut down and live events on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the show is transforming into a streaming service instead.
Starting May 13, the National Association of Broadcasters will stream live and preprogrammed content on three channels 24/7 as part of a new pop-up service called NAB Show Express. "Obviously, we would prefer to be holding our event as planned in Las Vegas next week," said NAB senior VP of communications Ann Marie Cumming. Ultimately, it decided that a streaming service was the best way to keep its audience engaged.
The NAB is not alone in its decision: Since late February, dozens of trade shows, conferences and summits have been canceled. Some event organizers simply pulled the plug altogether, while others hastily tried to line up live streams for their registered audience. With no end in sight for social distancing, some are now looking to follow NAB's example and launch their own microtargeted streaming services for industry insiders — services that could remain up and running even after current restrictions are relaxed.
NAB Show Express will consist of a mixture of live-streamed appointment viewing, preproduced videos slotted into a TV-like schedule and on-demand content. There will be a programming grid like the one used by popular streaming service Pluto, and viewers will get to see on-air graphics and interactive elements. "This is not your average dull live stream," said Frequency CEO Blair Harrison, whose company is helping NAB with the presentation of the streaming content.
NAB is combining its pop-up streaming service with more traditional trade-show elements, like access to white papers and news from vendors that were scheduled to exhibit in Vegas next week. By adding 24/7 streaming, the company hopes to reach a remote workforce that's working irregular hours and has traded office life for a mix of Zoom calls and Netflix streams.
Another company subscribing to that maxim is Brightcove. The video platform provider isn't just powering streaming for NAB Show Express, but also turned its own annual Play conference into a streaming service. Play was scheduled to be held in Boston in May, but Brightcove's Asia-Pacific team members early on told the company that its plans might have to change, said Chief Marketing Officer Sara Larsen in a conversation with Protocol this week. "A lot of it we saw coming," she said.
Brightcove had long planned to launch an app for smart TVs and mobile devices to accompany Play, but it quickly shifted gears to make that app the centerpiece of its strategy. "It really took on a new life of its own," Larsen said. "It has been an evolution for the team."
Play TV, as the new service is being called, will launch in earnest in May. It will include live-streamed appearances from celebrities like journalist Soledad O'Brien and "Free Solo" director Jimmy Chin, as well as on-demand content, and a TV-like grid with preprogrammed 24/7 channels. "We look at this as having our own Netflix or our own Disney+," Larsen said. "It will not feel like an online event."
To prepare for the launch of Play TV, the Brightcove events team also had to rethink its content strategy, such as more focus on shorter programming. After all, viewers at home may not have the same attention span as a captive audience in a hotel ballroom.
On the upside, turning Play into a streaming service potentially allows Brightcove to reach a much broader audience. Last year's Play conference had around 800 attendees. This time around, many more may tune in, including team members who usually don't get to travel, or international audiences for which the event had always been out of reach. And while Play TV has been publicly announced for May, Brightcove is already putting together plans for June and July programming and will launch a version for Japanese audiences later this year. "Our vision is that this is always on," Larsen said.
A transition to streaming may not work for every event organizer. Sponsors may, for instance, be reluctant to pay premium dollars if they can't reach key decision-makers in person, and event ticket revenue may not be easily replaceable.
At the same time, it's becoming increasingly clear that conferences won't be returning to normal anytime soon. Mark Zuckerberg said Thursday that Facebook won't host any events with 50 people or more until June 2021; Microsoft announced that it won't be having in-person conferences until at least July 2021. California Gov. Gavin Newsom said this week that large gatherings in the state are "unlikely" until the availability of a coronavirus vaccine, and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti suggested that his city won't see large-scale events until 2021. Some in the tech industry are already predicting that CES in January will be canceled, as well.
Brightcove's Larsen acknowledged that she wouldn't send her own team members to in-person events right now, adding: "Until there is a vaccine that works, it is going to be really hard to get 10,000 people together in a space."
With that in mind, many conference organizers are currently looking for a plan B, even while officially keeping their own fall events on the schedule. Streaming services like NAB Show Express and Play Live could be part of such a plan B, and possibly even complement live events if and when they return at some point in the future. "In just the last few weeks we've had over two dozen conferences come to us to take their experiences online," Harrison said. "We've never been as busy as we are now."
"Logistically, this is a vastly different approach to trade shows, but it's a direction the industry has been moving — more as a supplement to live shows than a replacement for them," Cumming added. "Launching the digital event required an investment of resources on our part, but we feel it represents a long-term gain for our community and revenue-generating opportunities for the organization."
Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.