Viacom Wants to Weave Live-Streaming Fans Into TV Programs

Brian Steinberg

Viewers used to chant “I want my MTV!” In 2017, they may just be able to help create their MTV.

The network’s owner, Viacom, is set early next year to test an experiment that would allow live-streams from viewers to be incorporated into a program on the air. Imagine watching people dance – almost live – to a popular video running on air. A new program using the technology is expected to debut on MTV Music in Australia, and executives at the entertainment conglomerate believe programmers from across the company would be eager to make use of it.

“Australia is moving so quickly to get this on the air, and we hope to do the same in the U.S. and other territories very quickly,” said Susan Claxton, a co-head of Viacom Labs, an internal unit that examines viewer behavior and works to devise programming formats that accommodate them. “Multiple” networks owned by Viacom are looking at ways to use the idea, she said. “If the ‘Selfie Generation’ and our fans want to share, we are looking at a lot of ways to connect them to and engage them with our content.”

If the technique sounds familiar, well, it’s tempting to pronounce it the modern-age equivalent of using technology to let viewers post opinions about music videos, a technique that was part of MTV’s once-popular music program “TRL.” In this case, says Claxton, the technology has the potential to take things even further. “It kind of democratizes reality TV, she said. “Anyone who is on the platform can participate and co-create with us.” In an experiment this summer, fans were able to raise their hands in virtual fashion by using a mobile device that supports live-streaming and a designated hashtag. Producers could then queue up feeds and select different streams in real-time from a control room.

The early effort suggests producers of old-school TV are looking to incorporate the new-school version. The advent of technologies including Periscope, Meerkat and Facebook Live has several media outlets wondering not only how to broadcast their content using these new technologies, but how to turn the live, streaming video into programming that can bring in an audience of scale that would be worth the time of major advertisers. Al Roker, the host on NBC’s “Today,” has through his production company, Roker Labs, begun experimenting with cooking shows and other formats tailored to live streaming. The New York Times and other outlets have begun testing ways of using Facebook Live to offer authoritative news accounts from editorial personnel.

Viacom has also dabbled in these new areas, said Claxton. The Comedy Central program “@midnight” recently broadcast an episode via Periscope. “It’s a totally new way of storytelling, and new way for us to connect with our fans,” she said.

The company is prepared in case some of those fans try to use the new medium in ways that a traditional broadcaster may not be able to stomach, said Claxton. Producers are able to use a delay or to place the live-streamers in a queue of sorts where they can be monitored, in case they get an idea to test the boundaries of profanity or nudity. “You can build in any sort of delay you want. If it’s our standards and practices to have a ten-second delay, you can absolutely dub that in,” she said. “We are curating this ourselves, and if we see someone doing something egregious, we would not put them on the air.”

Viacom Labs has put an intense focus on the technology in recent moths, said Claxton. In Amsterdam, an MTV network had devised something called “MTV Bump,” a technology that allowed fans to use social media to “trick out” an MTV logo, which could then be sent in and used on air in a video interstitial. Executives found the Amsterdam team had been working with a German company that had technology allowing one to transform a computer into an ersatz “production truck,” said Claxton. If fans made use of a particular hashtag, TV producers could line up their feeds almost as if each one was on a different camera, then load the feeds into an on-air production.

Producers at Australia’s MTV Music volunteered to run a test in the form of a midnight video show. Producers in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States could take live-stream feeds from around the world and incorporate them into the show, which generated more viewership than had been the norm for the time slot, executives said, without disclosing figures.

More such stuff may be on the way, depending on how viewers embrace the concepts. “ The Viacom Labs team will continue to push the limits of possibility around live streaming and more, across all our brands, where hundreds of fans-first innovations are already underway,” said Ross Martin, executive vice president of marketing strategy and engagement. “Tapping advanced TV and live storytelling to propel fan engagement will make a huge impact across our portfolio.”

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