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Periscope up: Is live interactive TV (finally) here?

Almost since the moment the Internet was commercialized, we’ve been talking about the promise of live interactive TV. And yet, more than 20 years later, despite dozens of social networks, YouTube and GoPro, we still don’t have a satisfying solution with mass appeal.

To be sure, there are a few things that come close to letting the masses connect directly with the talent – or even be the talent. Google+ Hangouts on Air and Twitch TV are probably the closest we’ve gotten to real-time interactive TV. Yet the former hasn’t really captured mass attention, and the latter is focused on the niche (though big) audience of gamers.

The execution of interactivity on these services is a bit clunky. Comments and questions are completely separate from the video experience, making it difficult for the viewer to follow the broadcaster’s evolving script. It’s a disjointed and frustrating experience.

PeriscopeBut live-streaming services Meerkat and Periscope may changed the game. Launched in March, these mobile apps are battling for market share. (Periscope may have the advantage because its owned by Twitter and has the advantage of it’s social graph.)

How It Works

The apps use smartphone cameras to record a broadcast. Viewers can not only join the broadcast, but participate by sending short text messages back to the broadcaster. They can also “like” the broadcast on Meerkat once, or send multiple likes to broadcasters on Periscope by continually tapping the screen.

The comments and likes are superimposed on the video, and broadcasters can reply instantly to questions or comments. It’s a much more immediate and intimate experience, and it’s seamless.

It’s also ephemeral. Streams disappear soon after the broadcast – immediately for Meerkat, and in 24 hours for Periscope. Many have been critical of this missing feature, but remember it’s also what sent teenagers in droves to Snapchat.

Both apps are still rough. The number of broadcasters and viewers is still small; the media is just beginning to test it; and only a few advertisers are experimenting. And technically, streaming is still a little stop-and-start. But as incomplete as they are, it’s to be expected. After all, it’s early days for both.

Real Thing or Fad?

There are plenty of skeptics who believe the apps might be a trend that fades quickly, but I’m not one of them. There’s so much potential in both – for advertisers, marketers, brands, celebrities, and the media – that I’m inclined to think this execution could be transformative. That’s not the same as saying either app might survive. We could certainly see a Facebook-like company execute on the concept better, turning these apps into modern-day MySpaces and Friendsters.

But if they work out the kinks – preventing piracy is a big one – there’s the very real possibility they will reshape broadcast media and marketing.

That impact won’t happen overnight. Right now, both are small and could stay that way for a while. It’s not encouraging that the apps have dropped in the iTunes rankings since launch. However, Meerkat CEO Ben Rubin told TechCrunch in early May his app had reached two million users, while Periscope had grown to one million users within 10 days of launch. (Twitter hasn’t released growth numbers since.)

Oh, the Possibilities…

broadcastBut here’s why I’m so excited about these apps. They will definitely create new opportunities for new types of content, and further blur the line between professional and amateur.

What’s more, they’ll change the level of interactivity and connectedness between broadcaster and viewer, allowing for real-time, personal exchange of information shared massively.

Brands can stream product launches live and take questions in real-time from viewers. Celebrities can create personal TV channels and schedule regular AMA broadcasts with fans. Musicians can share their concert experiences, both behind the scenes and at the mike.

Reporters, already asked to take photos to accompany their articles, can create live broadcasts of breaking news. They can take questions and receive tips in the moment from the audience.

And entertainment? Perhaps we can crowdsource in real-time the twists in a tale.

None of these uses may sound revolutionary or innovative. It’s true brands already use Vine to show behind-the-scenes footage and Twitter to engage in conversation with followers. But the difference is in the execution of the experience.

Seamless user-friendly experiences will always win.

And one final reason: I also believe the Snapchat crowd will grow to love Periscope and Meerkat. That’s a market too big to be ignored.

So, is live interactive TV here? I’ll wager yes.

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