Is there worth in airing live on Facebook?
When severe weather passed through the Atlanta area early this month, Brad Nitz, a meteorologist for a local television station, WSB-TV, fed viewers live video updates on the station's website, as he has done for years.
But then he did something new: He turned away from the television camera and addressed an iPhone that was streaming him live — on Facebook. And the station's social media manager, Jonathan Anker, watched this new Facebook audience swell.
At its peak, the stream reached 8,800 viewers at once, and the segment has been played more than 77,000 times in total, far more than the station's typical online audience.
The numbers, Anker said, were "seriously out of whack, in a delightful way."
Experiences like this have media companies swooning over the possibilities of posting live video to Facebook, a feature made widely available two months ago. For years, companies have searched for ways to unlock three tough questions: How do you attract people to live online videos? How do you reach people on their mobile devices? And how do you get more out of Facebook's 1.6 billion users?
Now, they hope, they have found a key for all three. Yet it is also raising some questions inside the companies about if — and when — they will see any meaningful money come from the push.
Already, Facebook users can tune in to a daily celebrity news show produced by E!, with anchors sitting behind a broadcast-style desk. TMZ streams daily gossip updates and goes live for breaking news. Local news anchors are broadcasting live from the field and during commercial breaks, or while they apply makeup. Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN fielded questions about the Zika virus.
"This feels like a transformative step," said Liz Heron, the executive editor of The Huffington Post, which recently restructured its video production to favor social media distribution after streaming live video through its website since 2012. "It's really the mobile piece that feels different to me."
The fascination also dovetails with interest inside Facebook itself. The feature, called Facebook Live, has largely lived under the radar so far. But it is one of the company's highest-priority projects, according to three people directly involved with the initiative, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Internally, Facebook Live is seen as a way to move beyond hosting conversations about television and live events to becoming a venue for both. Mark Zuckerberg, the company's chief executive, has made Facebook Live one of his pet projects, two of the people said, devoting significant resources and effort to the initiative. Facebook plans to announce a suite of new features and partners in early April and at F8, Facebook's developer conference in San Francisco later in the month.
Facebook declined to discuss details about the announcements.
The shows vary widely. Tastemade, a young food media company, streamed a live edition of its "Tiny Kitchen" show, in which it prepared a stamp-size hamburger; Martha Stewart spent an hourlong broadcast making pretzels with Seth Meyers. In addition, Facebook has urged celebrities and athletes to use Facebook Live to interact with fans.
The Huffington Post has tested live video across many of its 79 Facebook pages, with broadcasts from the campaign trail, celebrity interviews and live music events.
"Nobody came up to me and said, 'you should really be using Live,'" said Heron, who previously worked at Facebook. "I knew it was something I wanted The Huffington Post to do."
But there is also some trepidation inside media companies about getting tied so closely to yet another Facebook product. Some of those concerns echo those raised last year, when media companies debated whether to participate in Facebook's push to have news articles posted directly on the social network.
Most of the questions, though, have focused on figuring out how much money the companies will get for video streams viewed on the social network. Live streaming revenue could come from advertising, subscriptions or paid one-time events.
Media companies that spent much of last year producing original video for their Facebook pages have yet to see significant revenue, despite assurances from the company. But live online video has largely vexed media companies for two decades, and any possible path to success is hard to resist, especially one that requires few investments upfront.
"The whole thing has been really encouraging," said Allison Rockey, the director of programming for Vox.com. She added, "You need an iPhone and a mike, and you just kind of get started."
One of the appeals for media companies has been a sense of regaining control of Facebook's news feed, the primary source of information on the social network, where posts are sorted based on a opaque computer program. The lack of control has made reaching users — even those that follow media brands intentionally — more competitive.
With Live, though, live broadcasts display higher in users' feeds — a prioritization Facebook has acknowledged publicly. The service also notifies users through mobile apps when friends and pages they follow begin broadcasting.
Facebook's ability to convene large audiences will help Live compete with Twitter's Periscope, an app that helped popularize mobile live streaming last year. Periscope has been growing briskly, the company says. But companies that have used both products say that raw viewer numbers favor Facebook.
YouTube, the largest online video site, is in the early stages of making its own mobile live video app, according to a former manager at Google, which owns YouTube. The person, who has been in discussions about the potential app, spoke on the condition of anonymity because the project was still in development. (The project was reported earlier by VentureBeat.)
Donald Alexander, director of social media and audience development at TMZ, the gossip news site, said, "with Facebook promoting the Live platform so much, at some point I think it could take on a life of its own."
Alexander said TMZ was focusing on Facebook over other platforms, like Periscope. But when asked about specific discussions with Facebook regarding advertising, subscriptions and changes to the tech product, Alexander responded, "I have to be honest — they're keeping it a little to themselves right now."