Frontiers of live experience

New forms of live media experiences are cropping up at different scales, but what are the differences between live and on-demand anyway, and why does it matter?

By Brad Berens

Since the arrival of the VCR and DVR, home video, VOD, podcasting, and streaming, the last few decades have shifted our media consumption from live shared experiences in real time (synchronous) to on-demand experiences on our own time (asynchronous).

While this shift to on-demand makes what we watch, when we watch, and where we watch more convenient, it also causes the decline of shared, real-time media experiences. This decline has other costs like a loss of what Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin called “eventness” (sobytiinost’) and what science writer Daniel Goleman calls emotional looping.

I suspect that another cost is the increased polarization that plagues the world because without shared, real-time experiences how can we understand that other people can see the same things differently than we do?

These are high stakes, so it has been gratifying over the last few years to watch the growth and evolution of new live experiences.

But what do I mean by “live”?

This seems like a silly question, but “live” is one of those simple words that isn’t simple.

For most of its time on air, Saturday Night Live, the most famous U.S. live show, wasn’t live for anybody living outside the Eastern time zone. Growing up in Los Angeles, hearing the cast shout, “Live from New York, it’s Saturday night!” at the end of the cold open was always an ironic exercise. Did the “live” in “Saturday Night Live” merely mean that it was recorded live?

We know what isn’t live: any solo experience that has a pause button. If you’re watching something alone and freeze that experience, then it isn’t live.

But even this gets complicated quickly. If you’re watching a live sporting event and freeze that event to make a sandwich, use the toilet, or answer that important call about your auto warranty, then you’ve moved out of a live experience, out of sync, into an on demand world. When you’re ready to restart the game you have a choice: do you keep watching and stay out of sync, or do you skip back into the live experience? Do you wait for a commercial to skip (sorry, advertising friends) to rejoin the collective?

If you’re watching something on-demand with another person then you are bringing your own eventness to the experience because using the pause button requires negotiation. “Can we pause? I need to pee?” is an interruption to the other person’s experience that can be met with more or less generous responses.

Watching a movie in a movie theater with other people is another bring-your-own-eventness live experience because there’s no pause button.

Because of looping (which Goleman also calls “emotional contagion”), you’re more likely to laugh out loud watching comedy with other people whether it’s a sitcom with other people at home, a funny movie in the theater, or a killer set at a comedy club.

The most vivid live experiences are when both the performance and the audience are live and interacting with each other, when looping crosses the fourth wall, and the whole room synchronizes. One of my favorite examples of this is from 2014, when singer Bobby McFerrin turned an audience into a collective musical instrument in a three minute magical exercise (top right, click to view):

In 1985, Freddie Mercury did this with 72,000 people in a mesmerizing 40 seconds of the Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium (The sequence comes at minute 7:00.)  (bottom right, click to view):

Another way to know whether or not an experience is truly live is to ask “can things go horribly wrong?”

You know when you’re watching something pre-recorded that there will be no accidents: if somebody trips going up a flight of stairs then it’s part of the story.

In a live performance, if somebody trips going up a flight of stairs then you aren’t sure: did the character trip because it’s part of the story or did the actor trip because people trip sometimes? That moment of not-knowing whether the trip was part of the story or an accident of performance is a hint that you’re having a live experience.

(Side note: the very first time I walked onstage at a school performance I tripped going up the stairs and made a horrified face that the audience laughed at. I was five. I have been nervous around the stairs-plus-stage combo ever since.)

Some Newer Live Experiences

These range from intimate to massively scaled.

On the intimate side, Videoconferencing has been around for years, but it accelerated during the pandemic and changed the face of work and education. The current debate about Returning to the Office (RTO) is a result.

Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces and other collective audio, also accelerated during the pandemic, are the counterpart to podcasts and other downloadable media. The porous fourth wall in Clubhouse can be electrifying. One night, while I was doing dishes, I listened to my old friend Bryan Behar (you should subscribe to his newsletter) host a session about TV in the 1990s. Then, Bryan said, “I see Brad Berens is on the call. Brad, what do you think?” I frantically dried my hands and grabbed my phone to turn on my microphone.

Getting bigger, live streaming plus commerce: Amazon launched shoppable video with Rhianna’s live lingerie variety show (which you can still watch and shop on-demand). Following its Web Services (AWS) playbook, Amazon then rolled out an internal capacity as a platform for other people to use, so now there’s a huge Amazon Live collection of people selling things in real time.

Amazon is far from alone: Jeff Lotman, who owns Fred Segal, embraced live streaming early in the pandemic and launched Fred Segal Live on the talkshoplive platform. My friend Cat Jercan, who runs DJ’s Universal Comics in Los Angeles, has been hosting long, curatorial discussions of comics from his warehouse on Instagram Live and then selling copies in real time. Both Jeff and Cat are doing thoughtful demand generation exercises. Instagram Live is a distributed, decentralized, DIY version of Home Shopping Network. The network effects of both Amazon Live and Instagram Live are profound.

A downside to selling on platforms like Amazon and Instagram and talkshoplive is that doing so builds the platforms more than the individual businesses, but alternatives exist. Firework is a SaaS company that empowers website owners to live stream and sell on their own websites, adding the power of live to a media identity that the publisher controls.

On the massively-scaled side, big streaming platforms like Amazon, ESPN, Paramount+, and YouTube are doing more and more with live sports, pouring old-school broadcast and cable mass media events into new pipes. Amazon-owned Twitch pioneered e-sports, where audiences watch people play videogames live.

Speaking of videogames, game platforms like Fortnite and Roblox are hosting live concerts that millions of players virtually attend, with avatars undulating to the music.

Within these big platforms, however, lie more intimate live experiences. My son William is a nationally-ranked rower. An any parent of a rower knows, cheering your kid on from shore is a somewhat theoretical exercise even with powerful binoculars. “Is that little blob my kid? Or is that little blob my kid?” One time, a rowing event was sufficiently large that it played on YouTube Live, with camera-carrying drones and close-ups. What a miracle! We could actually see what was happening!

These days, we have new, exciting, and pervasive opportunities to enjoy live media experiences. The next question, and a topic I’ll be taking up next time, is why? I’ll also be digging into how live experiences connect with and help to explain Experience Stacks.

Finally, I’m getting ready to launch a new “Power of Live” study with the Center for the Digital Future. I need help in the shape of organizations to help us think through the research (which will start with a consumer survey) and to sponsor it. Please get in touch if you’d like to learn more.


Brad Berens is the Center’s strategic advisor and a senior research fellow. He is principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting. You can learn more about Brad at, follow him on Twitter, and subscribe to his weekly newsletter (only some of his columns are syndicated here).


See all columns from the Center.

September 23, 2022