On Wednesday, police in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, shot and killed a man named Philando Castile during a traffic stop. His girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, was riding in the car at the time.
She opened the Facebook app on her phone and broadcast the aftermath of the shooting using the new Facebook Live feature. (Warning: content is graphic.) Anybody who tuned in was able to watch the graphic image of Castile bleeding.
The next day, protests against police violence erupted around the country.
During one of those protests, in Dallas, a gunman shot a dozen police officers. So far, five have died.
This time, a Facebook user named Michael Kevin Bautista broadcast the action live. (Warning: content is graphic.)
As of Friday afternoon, each video had been watched more than 5.4 million times.
By way of comparison, the most popular nightly news broadcast last week, ABC World News Tonight on June 27, reached 8.5 million viewers.
When Facebook introduced Live in April, it wasn’t quite clear what people would use it for. Among other things, BuzzFeed broadcast people adding rubber bands to a watermelon exploding, and more than 3 million people watched it live. It’s now had more than 10 million people watch it.
Now it’s clear what Facebook Live is for.
It’s replacing the last stronghold of television: live events.
TV is under assault by cord-cutting, where people watch their favorite shows online and dispense with a cable subscription altogether.
Last September, TV ratings started to see a catastrophic year-over-year decline, and Nielsen ratings show a slow but steady decline in the amount of TV watched by nearly all demographic groups over the last five years.
A recent Nielsen poll of more than 30,000 people around the world also found that 20% to 25% of viewers under the age of 49 plan to cut the cord in coming years.
Sure, people might stop watching the latest network drama in favor of a Netflix or Amazon exclusive, but nothing would ever replace TV for live sports and breaking news.
But over the last year, we’ve started to see the first hints that live sports won’t be a TV exclusive forever. Twitter plans to broadcast Thursday-night NFL games next season, and Facebook was also in on the bidding.
Live sports is better on TV than when shot by somebody on their smartphone. There’s too much value in the expert camera work, the instant replays, and even (sometimes) the commentary. So any tech company that wants to replace the networks is going to have to win a bidding war.
The same isn’t true for live news. Sometimes, a good news broadcast can help viewers make sense of what they’re seeing. But the decisions about what to broadcast and how to show it are influenced by a lot of people along the way, from reporters to producers. That leaves TV news open to accusations of bias and poor news judgment.
Plus, a lot of TV news is boring. A lot of time the broadcasters seem to be struggling to fill the airtime, endlessly replaying the same video clips over and over again, talking to fill space. It’s not particularly interesting or immediate. It feels instantly out of date.
Compare that with millions of people with smartphones, filming and broadcasting big events as they happen.
Twitter is definitely in the live-video game with Periscope, and both are following Snapchat Stories.
But Facebook has the audience. Nobody has to download the Facebook app and figure out how to use it — over a billion people already have it.
When a big event happens, anybody on Facebook can tune in to see exactly what’s going on, unfiltered, directly from a bystander’s point of view. Why run to the nearest TV?