Aside from NBC’s Pete Williams and local Boston news station WCVB, TV news outlets infamously fumbled in reporting the manhunt following last week’s Boston Marathon bombing. That led a lot of people to sidestep the news middlemen and tune into police scanners feeds streaming online, such as through livestreaming video platform Ustream.
Starting Thursday night—after the FBI released images of the bombing suspects—through Friday evening, when the lone living suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was captured, more than 2.4 million people followed the manhunt on Ustream, including more than 265,000 people who simultaneously listened to a single police scanner feed in the minutes leading up to and after Tsarnaev’s arrest.
Ustream CEO Brad Hunstable referred an interview request to director of communications Joellen Ferrer, who provided information on the platform’s Boston-related traffic and described the Friday afternoon audience as “by far the most engagement we’ve ever seen for something of this nature.”
“At the time of the stream's first broadcast (10:30/11 p.m. PST), it had about 4K peak concurrents which it held onto until about 5 a.m. on the 19th,” Ferrer said in an email. “At that time, it exploded to 37K peaks and started climbing and never dropped. The peak was over 265K around 8:15/8:30 p.m. Eastern. Mobile viewers accounted for nearly half.”
That traffic is tricky. Obviously it’s an indicator of people’s interest—and of Ustream’s audience—but scanner streams were problematic in that they indirectly enabled the same kind of misreporting practiced by CNN and others. The game of scanner-to-Twitter/Reddit telephone got so bad that the Boston police asked people to not live-broadcast officers’ locations during the search, leading one of the main scanner-streaming platforms Broadcastify to pull its feed. Whether that was the right move is a separate question, but it wasn’t Ustream’s move.
“Our mission at Ustream is to empower anyone, anywhere with a digital camera to broadcast live and share their experiences with the world in real time. This mission has put Ustream front and center of many breaking news stories, such as the Arab Spring, the uprising in Syria, Hurricane Sandy and many other important events,” Ferrer said. “If we are ever asked by a law enforcement agency to remove a channel for fear of endangering a public safety officer or the public, we would honor that request. In this instance, there was no such request.”
There were requests, though, that Ustream quit running midroll ads—for brands such as Procter & Gamble's Febreze and not-for-profit medical network Sutter Health—during the scanner streams. Viewers got a notification alerting them that an ad would start in a few minutes with the choice of waiting for the interruption or watching the spot now. There also was a sly message noting that “premium members never see ads” with a link to find out more about the paid subscription packages.
Ustream may have better served its users by preventing ads from running against the scanner streams, but Ferrer made clear the company wasn’t trying to profiteer from the traffic flood.
“The police scanner that surfaced on Ustream [Friday] was broadcast over one of our free accounts via our open platform. We routinely monetize these free channels as they are created, and we don't proactively sell ads against them. Rather, their costs are automatically offset by ad networks,” Ferrer said.