Felix Baumgartner Jump: One Giant Leap For Mass Media

It was an event seen around the world — just not in the way we’re accustomed.

On Sunday, Felix Baumgartner’s 24-mile-high skydiving spectacular didn’t just break records for daredevilry. It also reached new heights for concurrent live streams on the Internet.  

The event’s single most-watched moment took place just as Baumgartner jumped from a capsule situated in the Earth’s stratosphere. At that instant, more than 8 million people were watching Fearless Felix do his stuff on YouTube, shattering the site’s previous live-streaming record. Google’s (Nasdaq: GOOG) video-sharing behemoth had previously attracted 500,000 concurrent streams during the 2012 Olympics, according to All Things D’s Peter Kafka.

And regardless of how the demographics break down, 8 million is a lot of viewers, rivaling — and, in many cases, surpassing — the number of eyeballs a well-rated network TV show brings in on a given night. As a comparison, CBS’s “Amazing Race” attracted 8.9 million viewers last Sunday, while Fox’s “family Guy” nabbed 6.7 million.

The Baumgartner jump provides clues into the Internet’s potential to replace television as the primary viewing medium for major live events. Not a single U.S. television network directly broadcast the event, although Discovery Channel (Nasdaq: DISCA) joined about 40 other networks worldwide that carried the live feed. Most interested viewers had little choice but to flock to their laptops, iPhones or iPads to catch the small bit of history that was unfolding two-dozen miles above Earth.

The live-streaming record raises questions about whether YouTube could one day compete with major broadcasters for exclusive airings of heavily watched telecasts such as the Oscars or the Super Bowl. Networks pay in the hundreds of millions for media rights to such telecasts, but, in return, the advertising rates they charge for commercial spots remain the highest on television — or anywhere, for that matter.

If Google truly wanted to muscle its way into broadcasters’ live-telecasts territory, it would not be as simple as stepping up to the table and throwing in a bid. The economic ecosystem of live telecasts has evolved over more than five decades, and the symbiotic relationship between broadcasters and content creators would be a hard habit to break.

For instance — as Kafka pointed out in a blog post on Monday — the national Football League’s content is tied up in contracts with CBS (NYSE: CBS), FOX (NYSE: NWSA) and NBC (Nasdaq: CMSCA) for at least another decade. And as the decade progresses, live-TV viewing as a whole will only decrease. Almost half of U.S. households now have DVRs, making big-ticket live telecasts the last bastion of must-see TV in the traditional sense — one that broadcasters will not give up without a fight. 

Baumgartner’s death-defying jump, which was sponsored by energy drink Red Bull, followed five years of preparation by the Austrian skydiver. The 43-year-old now holds three world records: the highest jump from a platform (128,100 feet), the longest-distance free fall (119,846 feet) and maximum vertical velocity (833.9 mph).

In an interview with the Associated Press, Baumgartner said he plans to “settle down” now that the event is over. Of course, for the world’s most famous daredevil, settling down means flying helicopter rescue missions with his girlfriend in the United States and Austria. Sounds like he is not quite ready to come all the way down to Earth — and stay there — just yet.  

Jolene Creighton

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