For U2 it was just another outlet for video footage but it may well prove to be the moment when the internet showed that it could generate audiences to rival broadcast television.
On ten million occasions viewers clicked on to YouTube to watch U2 perform live at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calfornia at the end of last month, a record for simultaneous viewing on the video website.
Malcom Gerrie, the chief executive of WhizzKid Entertainment, the company that filmed the event, said that both the band and YouTube were shocked and surprised by how many people watched online. “This achieved the kind of audience you might see for a television hit show, but it was far greater than you would see for a music show on television in any single country,” he said. “In Britain, they are cracking open the champagne if Later with Jools Holland gets seen by 600,000 people.”
YouTube, owned by Google, traditionally shows short video clips, and the U2 concert was one of only a handful of live broadcasts the website has undertaken. It was persuaded into doing so when Bono, the band’s frontman, took advantage of his friendship with Sergey Brin, one of Google’s two billionaire founders, to force a change of policy.
Previous attempts to broadcast major concerts live on the internet, such as AOL’s transmission of Live 8 in 2005, have proved to be disappointing for viewers because the prevailing internet technology had not been able to handle video well. As household connection speeds increase, transmitting live television online is becoming more practical.
The high viewing figures came as such a surprise that neither the band nor YouTube capitalised financially. Paul McGuinness, U2’s manager, said: “YouTube were a little unsure of themselves. They were supposed to sell a sponsorship for the event, but somehow they didn’t manage to.”
YouTube also refused to pay U2, although the Irish quartet accepted the lack of fees because they saw the exercise as a promotional experiment. The Rose Bowl gig was being filmed anyway, so the band could release a DVD of the event early next year as part of their contractual obligation to their music company, Universal.
Mr McGuiness said that in future U2 would consider charging viewers to watch live online when the band comes round to touring again in about four years. “We might do pay per view next time, and we don’t think that will cannibalise any sales of DVDs because the audiences are separate,” he said.
In Britain, few programmes top 10 million viewers. Coronation Street and other soap operas; Champions League and other football finals; and Saturday night entertainment shows are the only programmes able to breach that figure. Last week the X Factor elimination show on Sunday night was watched by 15.8 million, making it one of the most-watched programmes of the year.
U2 were able to exceed the 10 million level because the concert was made available to 187 countries, including China, North Korea and Iran, although a third of the 10 million audience for the Rose Bowl show came from the United States.
After the gig, YouTube is understood to be considering a change in strategy that would turn it into a regular rival to the BBC and ITV and any traditional TV station. A spokesman for YouTube would only describe the event as a “big win”, but Mr Gerrie said: “We think a whole new business model has emerged here.”