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CNN and Facebook’s live coverage of the Obama inauguration was hailed by many, including our own Liz Gannes, as the future of social TV. CNN Worldwide VP of Digital Marketing and Development Andy Mitchell joined Randi Zuckerberg from Facebook’s marketing arm onstage at NewTeeVee Live in San Francisco today to share a little bit of the backstory of this cooperation.
The two tried to add social context to live news events during the months leading up to the election with an idea called “debating the debates.” Facebook had just launched its Facebook Connect platform, and both companies tried to have users watch the debates and exchange arguments online, signaling their allegiance for either candidate with a badge on their Facebook profile. Except that it didn’t work. Facebook Connect wasn’t ready to scale.
Then, the day after the election, Zuckerberg was approached by two engineers who told her about their election night experience. They had watched Obama win state after state via a live-stream in one window on their computer screens, and monitored their Facebook status updates in another window right next to it. The folks at Facebook immediately fell in love with the idea and sent a screenshot over to CNN. “We thought: Why isn’t everybody doing is? Let’s make it happen,” recalled Mitchell.
And make it happen they did. CNN clocked some 1.3 million live-streams and 20 million Facebook status updates during their inauguration coverage. These numbers were even more impressive because every TV network basically broadcasted the very same feed that day, as Zuckerberg reminded the audience. Behind the curtain, two war rooms at both companies continuously monitored the experience, connected via conference link. Mitchell didn’t share any details about the infrastructure used to serve all those streams, but he admitted that the challenges were scary. “We bought up all the bandwidth that was available,” he said.
So why doesn’t CNN complement all of its live coverage with Facebook Connect streams? Mitchell said that the network was still trying to figure out how to utilize this type of interaction for events that have smaller audiences, and he hinted at further integration in the future, albeit without providing any details. Zuckerberg added that the most impressive part of the cooperation has been how it immediately changed the expectation of what social TV has to look like. Before the inauguration, social meant sharing links or babbling in live chat rooms. Now, everyone from Justin.tv to the NBA integrates a Facebook Connect Live Stream.