TV Streaming can be tricky!
Streaming video is not like TV. The same video doesn't fly through the same set of tubes to every viewer at once.
13:19 07 June 2017
Everyone who watches streaming video has a single stream that’s uniquely dedicated to them and travels through one of dozens of networks around the world. Those variables cause all kinds of capacity, buffering, and scalability challenges.
It’s also more complicated than sending, say, a large file through the internet, because streaming video is delivered through small packets of content that are each a few seconds long and need to be delivered consistently to avoid buffering or poor video quality. This is a truncated view of how streaming video works, but it’s a start.
What makes buffering worse is that content providers don’t always know where things went wrong when there’s a problem. They may have to call 10 different vendors to figure it out.
Unlike with TV, where cable providers own the end-to-end network used to deliver content, there are a lot of players involved in streaming. Often times, someone like Comcast or PBS will upload a video to a third-party cloud service, like Amazon Web Services. Then, an encoder like Envivio will compress that video into the six or more versions needed to stream across devices like mobile phones, tablets, desktop computers, and HD TVs. Once those are uploaded to the cloud server, a network will deliver them to the viewer, who streams them through an internet connection that comes from the ISP. The player you use to watch the video on an app or webpage may also come from a third party, as might the cloud based system used to add metadata, titles, captions, and other details to it behind the scenes.
Netflix is one exception. The company built most of the pieces it uses to deliver video from the ground up. It doesn’t own the internet, but Netflix can assume that if nothing is wrong on its end, the problem lies with the internet-service provider (ISP). And it makes that known to customers through its ISP Speed Index, which ranks Netflix performance on providers around the world based on the bandwidth and average viewing experience.
Netflix also doesn’t have any of the bandwidth-intensive challenges that come with large-scale, live programming like the Super Bowl or Oscars, which draw millions of eyeball at once, or live, linear programming that’s on all day. It strictly streams videos on demand (for now). But technical issues still keep the company’s leadership up at night, as the platform pushes toward 100 million subscribers.
The streaming-video industry has spent the last decade just getting to the point where the technology works reasonably well, most of the time. It’s only now starting to match the level of quality and reliability of TV, with the aim of surpassing it. Streaming’s meteoric rise over the last few years was staked on convenience. But, to keep growing, the streaming experience has to become better than TV.
Learning from broadcast
Content providers can’t all build their own end-to-end streaming solutions like Netflix. It’s expensive and beyond the scope of their businesses.
But there are other ways to streamline this process, the most promising of which are borrowed from the broadcast world. They involve giving content owners and streaming platforms a clearer picture of what’s happening at each stage of the streaming pipeline. Most content owners have separate dashboards with data from each vendor. But being able to see every third-party tools’ performance in one place cuts down on the finger-pointing behind the scenes and helps solve connectivity problems faster.
That’s the mission of Akamai’s broadcast operations control center, which was launched at the National Association of Broadcasters trade show in Las Vegas.
It aims to cut response times down from hours and days to seconds and minutes, by monitoring as many pieces of the pipeline as possible. Better visibility helps improve disaster-recovery and failover scenarios in streaming. (A failover is when a server or network crashes, and the data is rerouted to another server or network on standby.) It makes sure problems that inevitably arrive never interrupt viewers.
Taking another cue from the broadcast world, companies are also experimenting with single streams during live events, which all users can join, instead of sending thousands of individual streams.
Others are trimming the number of external services they work with, or leaning on online-video platforms like Brightcove and Piksel to manage all the moving parts for them.
And there are other technical ways to combat connectivity problems, like using “adaptive bitrate” technology, which is pretty standard in streaming today. If you watch a YouTube video on a phone, you might notice it blur for a few seconds when you step outside or into another room. That’s a sign that the video is being swapped out to adjust for higher or lower internet bandwidths. Content-delivery networks also re-route traffic locally to keep the core network at AT&T or Time Warner Cable from choking up.
Beyond connectivity issues, there are other challenges with streaming video, like integrating advertising technology. Ever stream a TV show and have the player freeze when it gets to the commercial break? Then, when you reload, the show starts over from the very beginning? If not, you’re lucky. It’s slam-your-device-on-the-table frustrating. It happens because most online video platforms use technology that places an ad player on top of a content player.
Think about all the challenges we just outlined. Now double them. There’s a greater risk of buffering—and aggravating viewers—because the technology relies on those content and ad players talking to each other. That’s partly why many content providers run pre-roll, or ads that air before the video starts. It cuts down on interruptions mid-stream and the odds that something might go wrong.
Companies like Adobe also get around this by inserting the ads into the actual video. It snips the content, inserts the ad, which might vary by platform or user depending on how personalized it is, and then stitches it all back together. There’s no doubt that TV is barreling toward a future in which streaming is king. You can watch everything from new episodes of Game of Thrones to reruns of Breaking Bad to live Thursday night NFL games online nowadays. But streaming still has to grapple with its unwieldy, underlying technology before it takes the crown. Learning from traditional TV, and other technical fixes, could hold the key.