Facebook Ups Investment in Live Broadcasting as Celebrities Sign On

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Kevin Hart and Daisy Ridley

The social network is making it easier to find Live videos on its mobile app.

A version of this story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

As Kevin Hart walked the red carpet at the Oscars in February, he would occasionally turn his attention away from his friends to talk to the thousands of people watching him through his cellphone. At one point Hart looked down at his phone, which was live-broadcasting from Facebook, and noted, "There's 118,000 people in here."

The two Live videos he posted to Facebook that afternoon have since been viewed more than 6.6 million times combined and have a total of 83,000 comments. And while the Oscars propelled especially high engagement for those videos, Hart's live posts regularly receive several hundred thousand views.

"I love that I can hold the attention of hundreds of thousands of people for 15 to 20 minutes," the comedian tells The Hollywood Reporter. "People laugh and they're entertained but I'm just being me on a large platform."

Hart is prolific across social media, but since Facebook introduced Live last August, it's become a frequent feature on his newsfeed. And he's not the only one. Everyone from Garth Brooks to Viola Davis is using Live to connect directly with fans. And now the social networking giant is rolling out new features designed to make it an even bigger part of their online routine.

Beginning Wednesday, Facebook users will start to see a designated Live hub on their mobile phones where they can discover popular streams and posts from the people and topics they care about. It will also serve as a repository for live broadcasts that have recently ended that might still be relevant to viewers. Other new features include Live capabilities for Groups and Events pages, a "replay comments" feature that will update comments on a non-live video in real time, and filters that change the look and feel of the video.

Sibyl Goldman, who oversees entertainment partnerships for Facebook, says that this update is meant to make Live "interactive, engaging, authentic and fun for both the publishers and consumer."

To promote the updates, Facebook has enlisted several of its partners to participate in a daylong event that will feature 24 straight hours of Live broadcasts.

Menlo Park, Calif.-based Facebook has been quietly growing its Live product for the last eight months, but this is the first major update since it became available to the masses in January and signals that the social network is upping its investment in the streaming feature.

"The goal is to keep you engaged for longer periods of time," explains BTIG media analyst Rich Greenfield, adding that the appeal for consumers is that they aren't tied to a TV set. "It's perfectly suited to the mobile phone because you can watch from anywhere in the world at any time."

The updates come as Facebook has placed an emphasis on video over the last few years, promoting video posts by turning on autoplay to entice viewers into watching clips as they scroll through their newsfeeds. For many platforms, video is seen as a way to drive increased engagement among users, which can be key for selling advertisements at higher rates.

Live is the next evolution of that strategy. Even as viewers increasingly turn away from live viewing experiences on linear TV, they find the authenticity and unexpectedness of live video online to be appealing, and they are sticking around longer to watch what happens.

"We invested a lot in video a couple years ago because we saw this trend of people evolving from sharing texts to photos to videos," explains Facebook director of product Fidji Simo. "In the last year, when we've looked at what the future of video could look like, we've realized that it's about making video more immersive, which means feeling like you're in the middle of the action. That's why we've invested in Live."

With Live, Facebook joins a growing number of streaming video platforms looking to capture moments as they happen. Meerkat and Twitter-owned Periscope sparked the trend in 2015, and even YouTube is said to be working on a live app of its own. But Facebook comes with more than 1 billion daily active users, and its fast-growing video business sees more than 100 million hours watched daily, numbers big enough to lure digital publishers and video producers.

For example, E! has launched a daily show that streams on Live and Today has begun to incorporate Live into its time with guests. Meanwhile, BuzzFeed saw 5.2 million views and 104,000 comments for a live broadcast of a fondue party from its Tasty food channel in March, and Disney had more than 1.1 million views for a Q&A with Star Wars' Daisy Ridley in less than 12 hours April 4, the day before the Force Awakens DVD went on sale.

"Fans are really responding to the level of authenticity that Live brings," says Jessica Intihar, vp digital marketing at Disney, adding that unexpected element of live keeps people watching until the end. "The engagement metrics are pretty fantastic. There's a lot happening on [broadcasts], especially for such a new product."

For celebrities, the value comes from creating a direct connection with fans. Hart recently broadcast from Cape Town during a stop on his comedy tour, Jennifer Lopez used Live to announce her new single and Brooks often streams videos from behind the scenes of his tour.

Brooks, whose videos often feature cameos by wife Trisha Yearwood, says Live enables a different type of digital relationship with the people who follow him online. "My fans want what I want from the guys that I follow," he says. "It's access to the backstage, access to how things work."

But even as Facebook continues to attract more Live broadcasters, the Mark Zuckerberg-led company has yet to address how its media and entertainment partners will make money from streaming, especially considering that Live is ad free for now.

Facebook executives have been making the rounds in Hollywood, signing on a small group of partners to test out advertising on Live. But the company has yet to create a revenue-sharing policy a la YouTube's partner program, which gives creators a cut of advertising.

"Everyone is waiting for that moment," notes Greenfield.

But for now, Facebook is focused on building a product that will push Live to the forefront of the digital video boom. "We just rolled out the consumer product," says Simo, adding that any future add product will need to work for users, partners and advertisers. "I'm really excited to work with partners to figure it out, but it's still very early. There's still so much to learn."