The State of Live Video 2017

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Over-the-top (OTT) video was an unstoppable force in 2016, and it’s on par to continue a strong growth trajectory. Juniper Research projects a fourfold market increase to $32 billion by 2019, highlighting how improvements in user interface and bandwidth infrastructure flexibility have encouraged consumers to steer away from traditional digital television content delivery.

The demand for live video content over multiple devices has grown as well, and the social media giants have been swift to feed this hunger. With Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram growing in popularity as live streaming end points, it is important for content players to syndicate to them in order to extend their consumer reach. This will be particularly applicable for sports content in the next few years, as 63 percent of sports fans have expressed their willingness to pay for an OTT subscription to watch their favorite teams and players, according to Statistica.

“Live continues to provide the ‘power of now,’ that sense of immediacy that engages your audience and that can create a sense of pressure to participate,” says Chris Knowlton (right), VP and streaming industry evangelist at Wowza Media Systems. “On the business side, such an opt-in audience is more likely to be engaged, especially when live viewing is merged with shared social experiences.” The result is that viewers are paying attention to the live stream, and they will watch it up to 10 times longer than on-demand content, according to a report from Ooyala.

In 2016, nonbroadcast companies such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter truly entered the live OTT scene, with Twitter combining social and live NFL games.

“Live will continue to grow faster than VOD in OTT,” says Per Lindgren (below left), SVP of live OTT for Net Insight. “We will start seeing more 360° and some initial VR initiatives. Players like Facebook and Google will continue to drive innovation, but larger content owners will also bring innovative solutions and viewing experiences to the market.”

Key trends include the growth in audience size for live online events and sports, as well as increases in video resolution and length of view time.

Is OTT Now Simply the Best?

While the TV remains the preferred viewing screen, the content is increasingly being delivered OTT, causing some to question the longevity of the prevailing playout and distribution model.

“In Europe, we’re at a point with video quality that it’s better than what’s on cable and on satellite,” says NeuLion EVP and co-founder Chris Wagner (below right). “Video quality on the old distribution platforms is falling behind. IP-based delivered-video quality is just stunning now, plus you have the move to 4K.”

Rory McVicar, project manager of CDN EMEA for Level 3 Communications, points to advancements in multiroom streaming set-top boxes (STBs) that have reinforced the belief that audiences want content on their owns terms.

“The idea of sitting down with your family in front of the television to watch a major sporting event is by no means dead, but already feels like a nostalgic representation of old viewing habits,” he says.

While live OTT offers advantages—such as an interactivity and portability that TV can’t match—the broader consensus is that for the time being, online delivery will work alongside other technologies as a key part of the technology mix.

“New technologies available for OTT distributors, such as accelerated delivery and prepositioning, address buffering and startup challenges, but they do require a more strategic integration with CDN providers,” says Ian Munford, EMEA director of product enablement and marketing, media services for Akamai.

“In many cases, satellite and broadband complement each other,” says Jonathan Berman, CBO, Video Solutions, MX1 (which is the media services company created in September by satellite provider SES from its acquisition of fiber and internet services company RR Sat). “Satellite is still the dominant way to serve quality content. As infrastructure improves we will see more and more OTT, with flavors of linear components.”

Knowlton’s view is nuanced. Many people have live viewing experiences that are nearly as good and predictable via OTT as from traditional television service providers, he says. “Yet there’s still a very large population of people for whom network bandwidth and quality are insufficient to support streaming services reliably. For most of those, standard TV offerings may provide a better experience—for now. As more content providers go direct to viewers, the lines between OTT and pay TV services will continue to blur, and we’ll need new ways to differentiate them.”

Lindgren highlights the need to overcome scalability issues and to solve the delay and sync problems in OTT which he says is hindering the monetization of new live content.

“Virtualized cloud adoption, business models to leverage personalized TV models, and the potential to add data and statistics for an enhanced live OTT viewing experience are all converging,” he says.

Consumption of live content is evolving due to the very nature of the OTT market, which, compared with linear content delivery, has a low cost-of-entry and offers a rapid time to market. As a result, more niche content providers and broadcasters can enter the market using the cloud without the large-scale, high-cost overheads and infrastructure typically incurred with traditional linear content delivery.

“The relationship between viewer and broadcaster will also become more intimate,” says Dan Finch, commercial director at Simplestream and TVPlayer. “As the financial cost and turnaround time in delivering content reduces, more specialized and niche broadcasters can harness the means to effectively engage with their audiences.”

More specialised and niche broadcasters will get into live OTT, says Simplestream and TVPlayer commercial director Dan Finch. 

Monetization, however, remains a crucial piece of the puzzle. “With platforms like Facebook Live generating and delivering live content to a plethora of socially syndicated devices, the need to ensure effective delivery to drive monetization efforts is important—especially to mobile,” stresses Finch. A recent report from Ooyala found that 51 percent of video is now viewed over mobile devices, illustrating a clear need for effective multiplatform content delivery.

“After all the hubbub about OTT live latency (e.g., Twitter streaming of NFL games), expect to see a strong focus on scalable low-latency streaming in 2017,” says Knowlton. “Look for the overlap of AR [augmented reality] and low-latency live streaming to create interactive and highly engaging experiences that could capture strong consumer interest through innovative applications.”

Rio Breaks OTT Records

The Rio 2016 Olympics in August was predictable in terms of setting new streaming records around the globe. Host broadcaster Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) churned out more than 7,100 hours of coverage from Rio to reach an estimated all-time high television audience of 5 billion.

However, the volume of coverage available online nearly doubled that of traditional TV, with live streams available from every session of the 28 sports comprising 218,000 hours versus the 81,500 hours attained in London 2012, “marking a milestone in Olympic broadcasting history” according to OBS.

What was less anticipated was the large dip in broadcast television viewing, at least in the U.S. “Were fewer people watching in 2016, or was it that many younger watchers were engaging this year via streaming and social media clips?” asks Knowlton.

Overall, more than 9 million hours of content were streamed globally through Olympic Video Player platforms powered at their core by Wowza Streaming Engine software. NBCUniversal alone streamed 2.71 billion minutes of live coverage—more than a billion more minutes than the live totals of all the previous Olympics combined.

This may have saved NBCU’s bacon, since views to its linear coverage were 10 percent to 15 percent down on its expectations (it was forced to open up more online ad inventory as a result). Viewing for the Opening Ceremony, for example, showed a 28 percent decline from London 2012. Viewing to its digital service was also down around 9 percent, yet 10 percent of the network’s entire ad revenue for Rio came from digital. Variety, which sourced these figures, suggests that the Peacock needs to get smarter at marketing the games across all its platforms for more than just 2 weeks every 4 years.

Microsoft Azure provided the cloud platform for NBCUniversal’s Rio service, Akamai provided its content delivery network (CDN) and quality of experience (QoE) monitoring, and Adobe Primetime was deployed for playback, ad insertion, and authentication services to NBC’s Olympics app.

The games were nonetheless a record breaker for Akamai and the BBC. The CDN drove 100 times more live streaming than 2012 at twice the speed and three times the traffic peaks. Traffic peaked at 4.53Tbps, with audience sizes of 1.54 million at an average bitrate of 2.75Mbps.

BBC Sport’s online coverage reached 68.3 million devices in the U.K. and 102.3 million globally, both records for the broadcaster. In addition, 30.2 million U.K. browsers streamed the action on BBC iPlayer and BBC Sport.

“Unique browsers” is calculated by the number of devices being used to view online coverage, which is why it was possible for the U.K. digital audience to total 68.3 million, even though that is greater than the country’s population.

The year’s other major sports event in Europe was the UEFA European Championship, which also saw record views over OTT platforms. England’s 2–1 win over Wales attracted 2.3 million viewers to the BBC Sport website, more than doubling the broadcaster’s previous highest live OTT viewing figure.

“This change in the way people watch their favorite sports will ultimately help open up the market to increased diversification, allowing more niche markets to develop more readily—think skateboarding, surfing, and darts as promising examples,” observes Finch.

Facebook Live Offers Global Reach

Arguably the biggest streaming technology news in 2016 was Facebook Live’s April arrival for the masses. While many people tried live streaming apps (e.g., Periscope, Meerkat, and Wowza GoCoder) in 2015, Facebook Live was the first one that almost everybody with a smartphone already had in their pockets.

“Having a subscriber base of 1.8 billion active monthly users gives Facebook a unique platform to socialize and promote new technology concepts at a scale of which most content companies could only dream,” says McVicar. “Products like Periscope have generated a lot of interest but have not managed to achieve true mass adoption. Facebook Live has the potential to build live streaming experiences into the daily web interaction habits of large swathes of society, spanning age groups and cultural backgrounds.”

Wowza’s Knowlton describes Facebook Live as “arguably the most disruptive product in streaming media today” by making possible one-to-many live stream creation and consumption to almost anyone. “Consumers have become accustomed to using the closest device to them to watch almost any content on demand,” he says.

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