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Streaming in 2016: Can't Complain
There's plenty of room for improvement in the consumer streaming video experience, but from the Rio Olympics to the Tragically Hip, it's bringing us live events in ways that were unimaginable 25 years ago.

Earlier this month I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit Rio de Janeiro and attend the 2016 Olympics in person. As a friend of mine likes to say, everything you’ve heard about Rio is true—everything good, and everything bad. And, in case you’re wondering, Usain Bolt looks even faster in person than he does on TV.

The trips down and back left more than a little to be desired. Ever been to O’Hare? It’s like the world’s largest bus stop, with lousy restaurants and nowhere comfortable to sit and work. And in addition to having to switch airports in Sao Paulo, which meant I took a 2-hour taxi ride through rush hour in the world’s third-largest city, my return flight was delayed by more than 4 hours. I had to wait in the airport until 2:00 a.m. before sitting on a plane for 11 hours with no Wi-Fi and an in-flight entertainment system that looked like it hadn’t been upgraded since about 1986.

What is air travel without complaining about how awful the experience is? Still, when you take a step back, you realize that, relative to the miracle of human flight, all such complaints are in fact fairly pathetic. As comedian Louis C.K. said about people who whine about seat backs that don’t recline far enough and sitting on the tarmac for 40 minutes: “You’re sitting in a chair in the sky. You’re like a Greek myth right now.” Could the air travel experience be improved? Without a doubt. But the fact that almost all of us loudly grumble about travel inconveniences says as much if not more about us than it does about airlines and airports.

We in the streaming media industry are no strangers to similar complaints about buffering, access, advertising, and authentication. When I posted about my trip on Facebook, one friend jokingly asked if I found NBC’s authentication process so bad that I decided it would be easier just to fly to Rio and watch the games in person.

There’s much about the streaming video experience that can be improved, and Streaming Media readers and advertisers are doing their level best to do just that. Indeed, when I’m asked to sum up our magazine, website, and conferences’ purpose, I usually say, “To help our readers do their jobs better.” But every once in a while, it’s worth taking a step back and realizing just how amazing the streaming video experience already is.

The night I arrived in Rio, I ended up on a city bus sitting next to someone whose smartphone alerted him that Brazil’s Robson Conceição was fighting for the gold medal in the men’s lightweight final bout. After a single click, my neighbor was watching the fight, which he could view with or without commentary from the announcers as the bus wound its way down from the base of Corcovado mountain to Copacabana beach.

The day after I got home, I got a text from our publisher in Vancouver, letting me know that one of our favorite bands, The Tragically Hip, was in the middle of what was likely their final concert in Kingston, Ontario, and that the CBC was streaming it free. Within minutes, I was watching it on my iPhone via Facebook Live; a few minutes after that, I was viewing it on my flat-screen TV via the YouTube app on my Apple TV.

A decade ago, neither one of those experiences would have been possible. My Brazilian friend would have been able to watch the boxing match on TV, and I might have been able to see the concert on CCTV at a theater or pay-per-view on cable, but the experiences we had were so much more accessible thanks to streaming video. In each case, the thrill was immediate, and contrary to arguments that the individualized viewing experience is isolating, each one made me feel part of a shared, communal event, connected to people across the world via the device in my hand, the seat of a bus, or the comfort of my living room.

[This column appears in the September 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Editor's Note: No Complaints."