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The Revolution ... Will Be Streamed

Observations about a changing media landscape, as we observe MLK Day.


When, in 1970, Gil Scott-Heron — often considered the grandfather of rap, and a renowned poet, musician, and civil-rights activist — released his now-famous single, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” he couldn’t have known that halfway around the world in Japan that same year, Sony was laying the foundations for another type of revolution with the release of the U-matic system, the first commercially viable VCR.

Scott-Heron highlights the role of “the Media” in covering (or covering up) the fight for civil rights and the demands for Black Power. The poem implies that social change is not the material for primetime drama, because true change stems from a groundswell and not from hollow photo ops. It offers both a call for action and an indictment; those who seek equality should storm the streets: The revolution will not be broadcast to a couch near you so long as the incumbents control and corrupt the media.

In its original form, “the revolution will not be televised” is a meme that captures the idea that power concentrated in the hands of a small group of media executives and their corporate sponsors determines not only how to report the news, but what is newsworthy.

Four decades from its conception, however, what started as Sony’s U-matic imbues the meme with new meaning. The VCR gave home enthusiasts the abilities to time-shift television, to consume home movies, and, later, to bring the cinema home. It showed for the first time that video production and consumption turned media into a two-way street. In an excellent history of the early days of video, Josh Greenberg discusses VCR’s first transformation from a machine that recorded television into an extension of the movie theater into the home, turning movies from an experience and into a commodity.

In recent years, however, the rise of streaming technology, epitomized by YouTube, coupled with the proliferation of cheap video-recording sensors (a camera in every phone, head-cams, cheap monitoring cams), ushered another transformation to the home-video ecosystem. Smartphones bred video production and consumption on an unfathomed scale.

So, 40 years after Scott-Heron’s call for action, and on the eve of Martin Luther King Day 2014, we can be pretty sure he was right: The revolution will indeed not be televised. It will, however, be streamed. Two recent examples of the role of streaming in coverage of “revolutions” include a digital version of Occupy Wall Street, called OccupyStreams, and the coverage of the Arab Spring, where citizen video-journalism was often the only media outlet available.

But this is just the beginning. On one hand, when compared to traditional TV-viewing habits, online video is still in its infancy. On average, Americans still watch 10 times or more TV than online video. And even on its best days, the livestreams from the Occupy movement didn’t garner more than tens of thousands of viewers. On the other hand, with the introduction of award-winning original content from the big streaming players, and the coming of age of millennials (a.k.a. cord-cutters and cord-nevers), this is changing rapidly.

Add to this the idea that crowd-sourcing and “amateurization” can disrupt industries (Huffington Post vis-a-vis New York Times, Encyclopedia Britannica vis-a-vis Wikipedia), and you get an explosive mix. Clearly, the maturing of ubiquitous production capabilities coupled with social media’s viral consumption patterns has huge implications for political news-making.

As is often the case, however, new technologies do not completely displace older technologies, but augment them. To stay with civil-rights examples, consider the 1991 Rodney King video. It had huge impact because it was broadcast on national TV. Would the impact be bigger if it were streamed on the Internet? Probably not. And yet, there would probably be other video surfacing, perhaps much sooner, as we learned from the recent video in New York City, documenting the controversial police practice of “Stop and Frisk.” This and other videos like it had significant political influence in the recent NYC mayoral race.

The ability to produce content using amateur equipment, spread it virally on the Web, and eventually broadcast it using the existing national TV infrastructure, maximized the effect. In other cases, the reverse might be true. Content that can never find enough viewers to justify mass broadcast can entice audiences using now-common streaming services, from Netflix to SnagFilms, and many in between.

Recently, the development of TV-like, episodic, high-production-value content like the Emmy Award-winning “House of Cards” is in itself a hybrid model. It borrows key standards of film and TV, and augments them by allowing new experiences such as binge-watching. Several streaming services are now experimenting with live broadcast capabilities, which are significant for news and sports. Taken together, these developments suggest that the next few years will challenge our very definition of what being “televised” means.

While the original fight for a color-blind society is far from over, in today’s Information Age, there is a heightened sense of urgency in the battle for control over the ways in which individuals receive and impart information.

Allowing more people to partake in the media ecosystem in a way that is meaningful and empowering to them, developing the tools and language for media fluency and facilitating hybrid media models, guarantees that democracy’s watchdog doesn’t come to bite us on our behinds while we’re zapping from our couches. When an ordinary citizen’s video can find its way to national news, and access won’t be mediated by the powers that be, we would know that we’re one step closer to realizing the full potential of our civil rights.

Shay David is a co-founder and chief revenue officer of Kaltura, creator of the world’s first open-source video platform. A serial entrepreneur, specializing in collaborative and open-source information and communication systems, he can be reached @Kaltura.

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