Live Events Online: Getting Used to Mediocrity?

As Streaming Media Europe 2009 kicks off today at the Novotel London West, we find the streaming media industry in an enviable position of heightened awareness in the eyes of the general public compared to this time in 2008.

Two major live streaming events, one in the United States and one in the UK, provide context for a series of discussions that will occur across the next two days.

The first, rather well known and acknowledged as one of the largest—if not the largest—live webcasts occurred in January, 2009, with the inauguration of US President Barack Obama. The live streams were seen by an estimated 37.8 million viewers.

Much has been written about the Inauguration streams, including at least one HD stream delivered here in the UK. In the grand scheme of things, however, a lesser-known but equally important event occurred just last week. In a first for a UK international football match, the UK versus Ukraine qualifying match for the 2010 World Cup was only available in the UK as an online, pay-per-view event.

While numbers have not been released, event promoter Kentaro, to whom the broadcast rights reverted when the Setanta UK pay TV service went under in June, was planning to limit the number of potential viewers for the match, capping the number of simultaneous streams at 1 million so as to "ensure the streams don't fall over" according to one description of Kentaro's strategy.

As Eric Schumacher-Rasmussen, programme chair for the Streaming Media Europe 2009 event, wrote in the last issue of Streaming Media magazine, "blaming it on the blockbuster" event is easy to do when we see massive online events succeed or flame out, but it is the day-in, day-out live online streaming that we must concentrate on to effectively challenge the traditional TV model.

Both of these events had their benefits and their shortcomings and both have surprising "tells" about the state of live content scalability on the web, whether high definition (HD) or standard definition (SD). Let's look at some of the facts about this more recent event.

One surprising bit of news was the fact that UK internet service providers (ISPs) had to go out and prepare their networks for the football match. Some ISPs were caught a bit off-guard, while others saw this as a way to tout their services.

"Delivering the England game via the internet will be an exciting challenge for all ISPs in the UK," said Clodagh Murphy, Director of Eclipse Internet. "We are confident that our significant investment in technology and capacity, together with our Optimisation Tool will give our customers a ‘virtual’ pitch side vantage of the match. We will also have our UK based Technical Support team on hand to help our customers should they encounter any difficulties."

BT even provided a help page for users to prepare their customers' machines to varying levels, making sure they had the proper browser (Flash 10, a PayPal account, Internet Explorer 7.0.5730.11, Firefox 3.0.4, Safari 3.1.2, Opera 9.6.4 or Google Chrome

Imagine explaining to someone who wanted to watch a match on television that they would need to spend a decent amount of time before the event preparing their television set. The newness of live event streaming to the average user, and the work involved to watch the live event, is not acceptable to a viewing audience used to the "it just works" model of television, regardless of how many viewers tune in.

Another gripe, although not a technical concern, was the pay-per-view status of the event.

"We're skeptical that it will go without any technical hitches at all," said one report, "but we're equally sceptical that a million punters will sign up —after all, England are already through, and judging by the reaction, fans who already pay licence fees and Sky Sports subscriptions aren't keen on putting their hands in their pockets yet again."

One site,
"Anybody on a cheaper broadband package should also be mindful of the fact that they may consume 1 or 2GigaByte's of data during the full coverage," the site stated, "which could cause problems if you have a cheaper service with a restrictive Fair Usage Policy (FUP) or small monthly usage allowance. Some ISPs may also impose restrictions upon streaming services and it may be wise to check with your provider before coughing up any cash."

Perhaps even more surprising was the fact that the match wasn't able to be broadcast in pubs, a staple of UK football watching. Some brave souls who commented on various posting locations said they might attempt to view the content on their large screens.

"I think it's disgraceful," said one commenter. "Everyone should be able to watch there own country play on TV not in front of a PC or Laptop. Total Rubbish."

"Might take my laptop down the pub and hook it up to the big screen," said another poster. "I'm sure the quality would be great. Haha."

So how did the programming fare? Two reports from TV critics labeled the execution as so-so along with the ongoing potential.

"I'm watching Ukraine v England on my own, on my little laptop, at," said Sam Wollaston of the Guardian in his write-up this past Monday. "The internet's the only place it's on. I've got no mates round, no giant plasma. I expect there is a wire I could use to connect my computer to the telly, but I don't have that wire. And to be honest I'm not sure the picture could cope with being blown up much more—it seems a bit jerky, like the whole team is doing the Peter Crouch robot dance. . . Anyway, this is probably the future, so we may as well get used to it."

"I've left my mouse cursor thing hovering on the screen and I can't be bothered to get up and move it," said Jeremy Clay of the Leicester Mercury, "so it looks like there are two balls on the pitch. But the stream is strong, the picture's good and the commentary is as good as can be expected . . ."

We'll have more on this topic during Friday's final session at Streaming Media Europe, which looks at the question of whether HD delivery on the Internet can scale to television levels.

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