• Stewart/O'Reilly Debate Again Shows Potential and Peril of Online Video

    This past Saturday night's "Rumble 2012," a half-serious, half-comedic live-streaming debate between Comedy Central's Jon Stewart and Fox News' Bill O'Reilly was another great example of online video's potential, but also its peril. Here was a situation where the bustling online video medium provided two of TV's biggest stars an unfettered creative and business opportunity, only to be undermined by technical snafus.

    In case you weren't following this closely, Rumble 2012 was an online-only live-streaming event staged at George Washington University. Even though many viewers registered in advance, paying the $4.95 fee to watch the live-stream - and therefore indicating to the organizers how much server capacity would be required - a last minute server crash left many viewers unable to watch. I don't quite understand why this occurred, as any high-quality CDN would likely have been able to avoid such a problem. Be that as it may, organizers haven't shared any further details.

    The server failure set off a torrent of criticism on Facebook, Twitter (#rumble2012) and elsewhere from fans eager for Rumble 2012. The organizers were slow to respond, and on Rumble 2012's web site there is still just a message saying that "For anyone who was unable to view The Rumble live and no longer wishes to do so, refund information will be available early next week. We regret any inconveniences this may have caused." Viewers weren't the only losers here either; because half the net profits of Rumble 2012 were to be donated to a number of charities, lots of deserving organizations will not receive the funds they might have had the live stream worked as planned.

    I wasn't among those trying to tune in on Saturday night, and instead watched Rumble 2012 on my big-screen TV last night courtesy of YouTube and Apple TV (see embed below - whoops, looks like YouTube's Content ID system is kicking in, though some copies are still popping up there). If politics is your thing, Rumble 2012 was quite compelling. Stewart was hilarious, as expected, up front accusing Republicans of living in an alternate universe he dubbed "Bulls-t Mountain," with O'Reilly serving as mayor. O'Reilly pretty much gave as good as he got, using flash cards to help make his points. I won't spoil the fun any further except to say it would be quite refreshing if our actual presidential debates were injected with some of Stewart's and O'Reilly's candor and jousting.

    But what's really noteworthy to me about Rumble 2012 is that it demonstrates again the appeal online video has to some of the biggest stars in established media. Back in January, in "Hollywood's A-Listers Embrace Online Video, Upending the Status Quo," I wrote about many of the celebrities who were pursuing online-only originals, in search of expanded creativity and the ability to exert greater control of their own business models (of these initiatives, Louis C.K.'s "Live At The Beacon Theater" was certainly 2012's high point).

    In the case of Rumble 2012, Stewart and O'Reilly, from two different cable TV networks, with two different owners (Viacom and News Corp.), chose online video as neutral ground and promoted the event to their respective audiences and others. They circumvented corporate meddlers and determined themselves how Rumble 2012 would work and who would benefit from the revenue generated.

    This is where I see things moving; TV and film as a broad-based, established media with numerous ground rules, and online video as the Wild West of creative and business experimentation. For major celebrities, it's the best of both worlds, letting them continue to cash in on the traditional system, while stretching themselves in the new. As long as online video delivery actually works (which unfortunately it didn't on Saturday night), then this trend is poised to gather more momentum.