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Live 8 demonstrates power of digital media

$10 million price tag for rights to concerts was money well spent for AOL
/ Source: Billboard

In the hours leading up to the TV broadcast of Live 8, AOL senior VP of programming Bill Wilson watched from his desk in New York as the number of visitors to his site's concert coverage grew.

MTV was set to air the event at noon ET July 2, when Wilson expected a nosedive in traffic. People would leave the Web, he reasoned, to watch the concerts on TV. Meanwhile, AOL was streaming feeds from shows in six countries and, aside from a few technical glitches, everything was going smoothly.

On a day intended to demand debt relief from global leaders, the entertainment industry received a mandate of its own: An estimated 1 billion people tuned in via one media or another, but it was digital broadcasts that achieved landmark moments.

"This has really woken up the broader entertainment industry and consumers that online is a really satisfying experience," Wilson says. "And from an awareness standpoint, this is a watershed moment for streaming."

At 8 a.m. ET, AOL began streaming the Berlin concert to roughly 30,000 people. By the time London's feed kicked in an hour later, the number was 65,000.

"We didn't know if we'd reach that all day," Wilson says. "We expected a modest audience Saturday and a huge audience on demand later."

At noon, AOL had 100,000 viewers as MTV launched coverage with tape of Paul McCartney and U2 playing "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" — footage that AOL had streamed live three hours earlier. Wilson waited for AOL's numbers to plummet. But a funny thing happened: They began to climb. And they didn't stop climbing until several hours later, when AOL broke the 175,000 mark. By day's end, more than 5 million people had streamed parts of Live 8.

Better on the Web"People had been watching on AOL, turned on their TV and realized it was better online," Wilson says.

Indeed, while AOL emerged as one of the day's stars, global broadcaster MTV's experience was more checkered.

Viewership was high, but not staggering. An average of 2.2 million people tuned in, according to Nielsen Media Research, and the network was No. 1 across cable networks during the concerts.

But the week's ratings failed to top previous weeks featuring MTV's award show premieres. And the network took a beating in the press, particularly from Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn. The longtime music scribe eviscerated the network's coverage for cutting from such key concert moments as Pink Floyd's reunion to showcase "mindless chatter from the MTV hosts."

MTV spokeswoman Jeannie Kedas says the network's plan was to feature as many of the artists as possible. "We played 69 performances in eight hours, which meant not being able to show full sets."

Live 8 organizers were quick to defend MTV's role.

"Whatever you might think of their programming decisions . . . MTV was crucial to spreading our message," says Kevin Wall, the concerts' executive producer, who brokered the media deals all over the globe. "There were so many countries we wouldn't have been in, were it not for their efforts." Ultimately, Live 8 was broadcast to more than 140 countries.

MTV had access to the same feeds as AOL; the online company was Live 8's North American broadcast partner and licensed its raw feeds to MTV, along with Clear Channel's Premiere Radio Networks and satellite broadcaster XM.

In noninteractive mediums, such networks as MTV had to make programming decisions about what their one broadcast would be. In the interactive, digital world, AOL could simply stream all the concerts and let viewers decide for themselves.

The online giant appeared to win over tens of thousands of new users at a crucial time. Live 8 took place just weeks after AOL moved much of its content from behind its subscriber wall, as part of the company's transition from Internet service provider to online portal and content destination.

AOL paid handsomely for the event. Sources familiar with Live 8's financing say that AOL and co-sponsor Nokia's contributions exceeded $10 million. For AOL, it was money well-spent, even putting aside a noble cause.

"Live 8 was a huge catalyst in letting people know that our content is available free now," Wilson says. In the 48 hours following Live 8's broadcast, the exec says, 70 percent of traffic came from nonsubscribers, compared with roughly 30 percent in the weeks before the event. Traffic for AOL's "Top 11," a new online show that targets MTV's "TRL," "went from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands" of viewers post-Live 8, Wilson says.

From stage to CDAOL wasn't the only big digital story of the day. McCartney and U2 created an immediate hit with "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." U2 guitarist the Edge downloaded the single in his hotel room just 10 hours after playing it in London.

The track was actually available on 200 sites only 40 minutes after it was performed, a testament to the power of fast-tracked licensing.

Universal Music's eLabs got approval to release the recording while U2 was onstage; the label had already cleared the legal paperwork with Apple Corps, the Beatles' label. The track topped iTunes charts in several countries, with Universal donating proceeds from the sale of the single to Live 8.

Mobile technology also played a key role in the day. Unlike the original 1985 Live Aid concert, Live 8 asked people to contribute their voice, not money, to the cause. Fans at the concerts could send text messages with their names, which would scroll across a ticker screen at their venue and be added to a petition urging world leaders to fight global poverty. All told, some 26.4 million messages were sent (including e-mail and other messages sent from home viewers).

Wireless companies around the globe were challenged to link networks to handle international dialing issues and traffic the incoming messages to the show organizers.

With little time to develop onstage display mechanisms, Sun Microsystems stepped up the system it had been using for U2's interactive messaging service for the band's latest tour.

"This is a fascinating case study on how the music business can apply interactive technologies to its activities," says Ralph Simon, chairman of the U.S. chapter of the Mobile Entertainment Forum, who helped coordinate the concerts' mobile efforts. "The days of paid cable television are fast being replaced."