The Media Loves To Hype Live Events: Red Bull Stratos Webcast Not A Record

On Sunday, YouTube broadcast the live jump by Felix Baumgartner for the Red Bull Stratos event. Soon afterwards, multiple media outlets were quick to call it the largest webcast ever and said it broke records, simply because YouTube’s player has a counter on it showing how many users were watching the stream. What they didn’t mention was that at peak, all videos on YouTube was down for many users, the live stream was encoded at a low bitrate and YouTube didn’t even broadcast the video on their network, but relied on third-party CDN Akamai instead. Seems nothing has changed from years ago when I wrote a similar posts asking, “Does Anyone Care About The Business Of Live Events, Or Just The Traffic?

[Updated 9:36pm: YouTube has just posted to their blog that “more than 8 million concurrent livestreams” of the event took place, but their numbers don’t match the ones that we have so far seen from Akamai. And they didn’t say “unique” streams. If they are going to put out vague numbers, they should at least put out the methodology on how they count streams as many times I could load the player, but not the video. So are they counting player loads or streams starting? Also, they say it was the “most concurrent views ever on YouTube”, but didn’t say “delivered by” YouTube. And unlike the media, no where did they imply it was the largest video event ever on the web, so I will give them credit for that.]

While the YouTube player showed a counter that went up and down during the event, it’s not a true indication of exactly how many simultaneous users were watching the stream. As an example, I watched the stream on three devices, all at the same time, but I am only one user. Is Google counting me as one unique user, or three unique users? Am I counted as one simultaneous stream, or three simultaneous streams? None of the numbers you see in the player are ever exact and many times, they are way off. Content owners who do live events across multiple CDNs will tell you that many times, the number of users they see via the tracking technology in their player and the number tracked via the content distribution network, rarely match up.

For the event, all streams I traced were coming back to Akamai which was clearly involved in the event and when I looked at Akamai’s reporting dashboard during the event, their “live stream” count never went above 3M. And that’s 3M for all of Akamai’s customers on their network, not just YouTube’s. It is possible that both YouTube and Akamai were both doing distribution of the video for the event, but people I spoke to who traced the stream in Europe and Asia all saw it being delivered by Akamai as well. One thing that was clear from this webcast is that Google still can’t seem to handle large-scale live events on their network. For the recent Presidential Debate and PSY concert, both of them crashed on YouTube and doing trace routes during those events, didn’t show any CDN provider like Akamai being involved.

For this event, the live stream that Akamai hosted worked without any hiccups that I saw or that were reported, but the traffic in general to YouTube’s website caused a lot of 502 errors with the site being down for me and many others. While the media is so quick to want to call something the biggest ever, Google has never provided their methodology for how they count “simultaneous” streams and I’m sure they never will. As we have seen from past YouTube events, like the Olympics, they have never given out an exact number, but rather said “more than”, so I don’t expect them to break out the Red Bull webcast with any really detailed numbers, with methodology.

Far too many people in the media and in the industry want to judge the success of a webcast solely by the number of people who watched the event, rather than using that number as just one of many data points that need to be viewed together to judge the success of an event. But the biggest thing the media is missing, that no one has discussed yet, is who made money from this event? Why is the media so quick to want to talk stream numbers after an event, but then never looks at the bigger picture of what live events mean for content owners and publishers who are trying to monetize content? I didn’t get any ads during the event, so it does not look like YouTube monetized the stream and the way YouTube is throwing money at content owners, I’d be willing to bet that Red Bull didn’t even have to pay YouTube for the live stream, since YouTube was a sponsor of the event. The media should be focusing on what the business model was for this webcast and not simply how many streams it delivered.

So what is the largest record for a live event on the web, in terms of simultaneous numbers? The answer is, no one truly knows. None of the data provided after live events is usually very detailed, validated by a third-party and many large-scale webcasts take place with inflated numbers. The largest event I know of, based on the data I was given at the time and from research I did, was the 2009 Presidential inauguration. At the time, the media reported that Akamai did 7.7M streams of the event, but once again, got the data wrong. Akamai did 7.7M live streams of all their customers combined that day, of which 3.8M were the Obama inauguration, as verified by Akamai directly. Between Akamai, Limelight, Highwinds and a few smaller CDNs, all vendors combined, I estimate they did between 7-8M live simultaneous streams of the 2009 inauguration. But no one knows the exact number. And talking about business models, for all of the bandwidth Akamai did for those 3.8M streams, the company told me back in 2009 that they made less than $100,000 on the business. So for those that think there is a lot of money in distributing live events on the web, there isn’t.

Webcasting events live on the web has been going on for more than 15 years now and it’s time the media stops getting all giddy with bandwidth numbers and instead, starts asking the questions of how this medium can be monetized, when content owners will start to make money from live events and what changes need to take place in the market so that webcasts can be profitable events for content owners, as opposed to simply a way for someone to show off meaningless stream count numbers. In 2007 I wrote a post entitled “Webcasting Large Entertainment Events Still Unprofitable“, and five years later, as an industry, we’re still not seeing signs or discussions taking place about the business side of webcasting big events. The media needs to focus on the business, not the technology. Without a business model behind it, the technology is useless if content owners can’t cover their costs of using or deploying it.

And for those members of the media that having been picking up on the webcasting story over the last few hours, make sure you question the data. I’ve done a few interviews already where some have said to me that”YouTube said” they did 8 million streams. YouTube has not said anything of the sort. The numbers you are quoting come from articles in the Huffington Post and WSJ and none of them have quoted or said they have spoken to anyone at YouTube.

More Data On Large Webcast Events:

Akamai: About 3.8 M Simultaneous Obama Streams, Details Capping Of Customers

NBC Failed With Their Super Bowl Webcast, But Wants Us To Believe It Was A Success

– MSN Releases Traffic Numbers For LiveEarth Webcast, Sort Of

Oprah Webcast Draws 500,000 Simultaneous Viewers

Inauguration Numbers: CDNs Deliver Over 8 Million Simultaneous Video Streams Won’t Say Why Their Debate Webcast Failed

MSNBC Debate Webcast Constantly Buffering, Poor Audio

YouTube’s Live Event As Overhyped As The Company

Webcasting Large Entertainment Events Still Unprofitable

Does Anyone Care About The Business Of Live Events, Or Just The Traffic?

World Cup Streaming Numbers Show Online Video Not Replacing TV

  • Great read! Thanks! We have been one of the leaders of live streaming (@StreaminGarage) So love seeing the advancement of live- but always important to know who is doing it right and where the flaws still live.

  • I’m wondering if maybe YouTube actually used a combination of Akamai and their own network to serve this event. There may have been load balancers that directed viewers to either network depending on region, timing or network load. I don’t know either way, but seems plausible as I do know it’s not uncommon for some live streaming CDNs to utilize third-party networks in addition to their own to reliably scale bigger events.

    • Jerry

      Not only plausible, but likely, that content providers use multiple CDNs (including their own, as in the case of YouTube/Google) to serve large numbers of streams/users. Testing from 5 systems (3 being effectively the same system) means little when using multiple CDNs.

      That 1 stream doesn’t necessarily equal 1 user (silly case of 1 person downloading the same stream 3 ways discounted) is the same problem as in broadcast television or any other content that can be consumed individually or as a group. No one will never know how many people saw the stream at that time, and this is not an uncommon problem with streaming/broadcast/etc.

      As for monetizing the stream, Dan was referring to the delivery guys (YouTube, Akamai, other CDNs), not the content provider (Red Bull). It is obvious how Red Bull benefited from this event. It is far from obvious how YouTube or a CDN would benefit from this event.

  • This was the best piece of branded content I have ever seen. How was it monetized? It was a giant Red Bull commercial for crying out loud! It was monetized by the sales of Red Bull. That’s how. On my twitter stream and fb feed alone I saw about 6 or 7 posts of people buying red bull solely to show their support for the entertainment. More brands need to start creating lifestyle content and entertainment like this, without worry of how the stream is monetized itself. You don’t ask how Coca-Cola monetizes the commercial time they purchase from TV networks. This should be no different.

    • I agree with this post. I’m sure red bull are delighted with the exposure they’ve got out of branding this content. And I’m sure they’ve got a very well thought out business case and ROI for this project. Dan, it would be great if you could chat to the red bull marketing folks and try get some details from them about the business case. An article from you on that topic would help to get the conversation focused on the business case, not just the numbers.

  • Philipp Angele

    Have you ever thought about akamai´s api is delivering the estimated live statistics to youtube? which always appear higher than what is really happening. Usually you see their “real” stats 48hours later and then it mostly gets downgraded to a real world usage… Anyhow thanks to RedBull 4 bringing such entertainment to us but NO THANKS to Youtube! Who was in charge at google for this? Who decided to cut the stream for 2 hours before the press conf was starting? Nobody in charge of a 8.2 ( or whatsoever) mio visited stream should cut to a still image at peak traffic!!! next time RB shouldn’t just stream exclusively to Youtube. There are other platforms which are more dedicated to live streaming. BTW i couldn’t watch the stream in germany properly. We tried 3 different ISPs(Telekom 50mbits, Arcor 16 mbits, versatel 20mbits) and our datacenter connection(1gbit) and it was laggy as HELL as soon as the people were leaving the stream this problem was gone and we could even watch HD… (usually we don’t have problems with akamai traffic in germany…) their lowest iPhone encoding was so low you got eye cancer from watching… you know what I did? Yes, watching Television… shame on akamai for not being able to deliver properly..

  • Mya Lewis

    Dan, the measurements by media metrics firms of the number of viewers of live events via television broadcasts is just as fuzzy as for Internet livestreams.

    It seems quite clear that the only reason that owners are able to monetize those broadcasts is a tacit agreement by broadcasters, advertisers, and media metrics firms to simply believe the statistical model that they’ve developed to measure broadcast viewership.

    No credible audits are publicly available that would confirm the validity of these statistical models. And certainly none that critically examine the changes in these models over time.

    It’s for this reason that the old retailer John Wanamaker said “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”

  • Rich Mavro

    Dan, I agree with you and have for a long time now. Since streaming is not a novelity any more, reporting on gee-wiz stats is about as interesting as reporting Facebook has more subscribers. That it costs greater than zero to reach each viewer makes it necessary for any live event to makes business sense. Redbull no doubt got their name in front of smartphone viewers…who are more likely to drink that stuff than are conventional TV viewers, so I should think their mission was accomplished.

  • Dan,

    I think no one is talking about how to monetize live streaming because at the end of the day the technology still sucks. As you mentioned in the post, the stream was sent via a vary low bitrate as well as suffered from load issues. This seems to sum up the issues around all live streaming events.

    In my opinion, online video needs to be high quality and on a big screen to earn real money. I think the media focuses on streaming figures as it is trying to create the false image that these live streams are as big as cable/broadcast TV. But the truth is the quality just isn’t there (and thus the ad dollars just aren’t there).

    I agree more time can be spent discussing how to monetize webcasts (it’s just silly that most live events show no commercials / ads), but even with ads there still isn’t that much money in live streaming until the technology is good enough for the big screen.

  • Dan
  • Markus

    Now that a few days have passed it would be really interesting to get your take on this. Google has stated (as you note in your update) with no ambiguity that they did 8+ million concurrent live streams – sure you can nit pick the details of how they count them and whether they used multiple CDN’s for the actual bits being delivered but we all know that’s if nothing else an interestingly large number.

    More importantly though, the premise of your post is that no one is talking about who made money. My linkedin feed is littered with links to analysis of this event, and not just on streamingmedia but everywhere from forbes to huffingtonpost. The reaction overall has been overwhelmingly positive. It would be hard to disagree with the analysis that this was a huge win for RedBull themselves. To the greater question of whether or not it was a win for you Google/YouTube feel like the evidence would suggest yes. It validates them as a legitimate provider of large scale live events, removing any concerns about them being a one trick pony with the olympics. It solidifies a relationship with a highly desirable provider of popular YT content in RedBull and their target demographic, which coupled with the Machinima lock up feels like a real win.
    Love to get your thoughts now that the dust has settled a little, do you still feel like the media has missed the boat on this one?

  • Kendra Chamberlain

    “I’ve done a few interviews already where some have said to me that”YouTube said” they did 8 million streams. YouTube has not said anything of the sort. The numbers you are quoting come from articles in the Huffington Post and WSJ and none of them have quoted or said they have spoken to anyone at YouTube.” Not true, that 8 million figure comes directly from YouTube’s blog post. From YouTube’s Blog: ” At peak, you were watching more than 8 million concurrent livestreams of this mission, which intended to break 50-year old records of human limits and break new ground in medical and scientific research.” and “We congratulate Felix Baumgartner and the entire Red Bull Stratos team for their successful mission, and for creating a livestream with the most concurrent views ever on YouTube.” FTFY

  • Didi Zon

    Absolutely agree on the moral of measuring the success of the event, not by just looking at the amount of viewers when the video was streamed, but what also should be looked at is the amount of attention that Red Bull Stratos has been getting before the 14th of October, and after the actual jump. I couldn’t have said it in better words myself: “Why is the media so quick to want to talk stream numbers after an event, but then never looks at the bigger picture”.