New streaming technology coupled with interactivity has the potential to disrupt or enhance how breaking news stories and live events are covered

Not for submarines
Periscope is a video streaming app allowing smartphone users to transmit what they are filming in real time, over a 3G/4G connection or wifi. Viewers can comment or ask questions during the broadcast, resulting in a flurry of boxes flashing up over the video. Notifications also pop up when people start watching, and a counter appears showing how many viewers around the world there are. The app was bought by social media giant Twitter earlier this year, and users often give advance notice of something they are going to broadcast over Twitter.

Like other social media platforms, Periscopers can be ‘followed’ and ‘liked’ – with heart symbols fluttering across the screen as viewers respond to something happening in the video they particularly like.

The video can be found online and played again after the broadcast ends, complete with the comments and ‘hearts’.

Screenshots showing who’s Periscoping around the world, and comments during streaming


What are the app’s… applications?
There are YouTube celebrities, there’s the Twitterati, and despite being a mere three months old, Periscope already has its ‘stars’ – unknowns in other quarters – with millions of followers. So perhaps the app primarily facilitates self-promotion. And there is a lot of random, slightly banal ‘window on the world’ or ‘is anybody out there’ type stuff that harks back to the early days of web cams and chatrooms, if one takes a browse of the world map hotspots to see what people are broadcasting.

But media organisations have been quick to see the potential use for news. The likes of the BBC, CBC, CNN and Sky are already experimenting with incorporating such technology into their news coverage, for raw, unedited real-time interaction. In the UK, the birth of Princess Charlotte had CNN reporter Max Foster providing a live stream from outside the hospital, mixing it up with commentary, and giving tours of London streets during all the waiting and downtime. CBC reporters have been Periscoping from hockey games in Canada.

Additionally, institutions such as the London Zoo – and last week – the UK’s V&A Museum with fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s exhibition, have been using the app as a tool for public engagement – attracting viewers with a ‘behind-the-scenes’ peek.

The application for breaking news is clear. The main difference between Periscope and a reporter doing a live cross on the scene is interactivity – viewers can comment and ask questions. And it’s findable and sharable in the social media haystack in the way that a TV or online live news channel is not. Crucially Periscope broadcasts can be found and watched again after the event.

And the downsides?
Picture quality and stability. But it’s a little unfair to compare a professional broadcast camera and satellite uplink to a shaky 3G connection and someone waving their mobile device around. For this reason it’s another tool to give an extra dimension to a story rather than replacing any particular medium. After all, the quality of Periscope is akin to a webcam.

A bigger issue is piracy and copyright – or is it? Almost as soon as Periscope was released, the app hit the headlines with users streaming one of the biggest ever pay-per-view events: the Pacquiao-Mayweather boxing match (costing $90 to watch legitimately) and pointing phones at their screens showing the latest season of Game of Thrones. But Periscope says it’s now better prepared, with a dedicated team to take down copyright-infringing streams on request.

As audience members at live sporting events such as Wimbledon, organisers are starting to ask ticket-holders to agree not to stream on Periscope. But as Wired has reported, this is difficult to police, however it’s as much a problem as preventing people from simply filming concerts or plays – the issue is not new, and some fuzzy footage from the end of someone’s arm is hardly going to compete with high-quality, live free-to-air coverage. That’s another value point for public service broadcasting.

And, as the tech magazine also pointed out, Periscope’s owner Twitter, knows it makes good business sense to stay on the right side of broadcasters, as it “has been courting the television industry for years, offering Twitter up as a perfect vehicle for amplifying existing programming” – Twitter itself depends on mass media organisations for influence and reach.

The noise is typical of the plaudits and panic that often greets disruptive new platforms

There are clearly forward-thinking digital editors and social media directors at broadcasters seeing the potential, but take-up is often driven by individual reporters keen to experiment with new tools. However a note of caution: not all broadcasters are keen or understanding. Several journalists have lost their jobs, their employers considering them having gone off-piste by Periscoping some innocuous snippets of their home life or some behind the scenes content from an event they were covering.

Life in the fast lane
The noise surrounding Periscope is typical of both the plaudits and panic that has greeted most potentially disruptive platforms on their launch in the past, be it Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. No one predicted the applications that these platforms would come to be used for, and there will be a period of evolution for Periscope as well. Simple common sense and caution is best, like anything, and if any sector has the agility and track record riding the crest of the technology wave, arguably it is broadcasting.

Having beaten similar app Meerkat, Periscope now has another competitor breathing down its neck that has been developed in India – Instalively, which is bypassing some of the rights and privacy issues by syncing to YouTube and therefore piggy-backing on their checks and filters. Nobody really knows where this next stream will take media, but probably everyone can agree: developments are moving almost as fast as breaking news itself.