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Next-Generation Content Delivery: The Shift Is Underway
What will it take for live streaming to finally match the global scale of traditional TV? A look at the next 18 months of next-gen video delivery.
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Our industry’s holy grail has always been to simultaneously livestream an event to hundreds of millions of online video viewers. That hasn’t quite panned out in the last two decades of streaming, even though some of the tools to do just that have been around the whole time.

For instance, the most recent global event, the 2018 Winter Olympics from Pyeongchang in South Korea, saw an uptick in online viewership. An announcement from Discovery, which owns the Eurosport network, noted that “a record breaking 76 million users enjoyed the Games online” across Eurosport’s pan-European footprint, and 15 million of those used the company’s integrated Eurosport app.

But even though that meant “daily video views up 166 percent compared to January 2018” for the over-the-top (OTT) Eurosport app, it still paled in comparison to the 386 million overall viewers of Eurosport’s Olympic coverage, which in some countries like Norway reached a 90 percent household penetration for TV viewing.

That’s not to say that OTT delivery is waning. In fact, quite the opposite is true. But having the 76 million online viewers is a key to understanding why the industry—in its shift toward online viewing, fragmented across various platforms—is also shifting toward multiple types of delivery models for online content.

UNDERSTANDING THE SHIFT

As we look at new approaches to media delivery online, it’s first helpful to remember just how different media consumption is today compared to even 5 years ago. A recent survey helps illustrate that point. 

In late 2017, Qualtrics conducted a survey around U.S.-based television viewing habits, with on-demand services such as Netflix and Hulu as options alongside traditional over-the-air (OTA) and cable television. The findings of the survey are fairly in line with our own, Unisphere-based surveys of Streaming Media readers when respondents are asked to compare media consumption choices offered through OTA live-linear television or OTT’s double offering of live and on-demand content viewing.

While the Qualtrics methodology used a fairly small survey size of 500 people, its results emphasized just how radically our collective viewing habits have changed over the past 5 years. Netflix viewing was the preference for almost one-third of Qualtrics’ survey responses, while live television was the preference of one-quarter of the respondents, followed by prerecorded or time-shifted digital video recorder (DVR) content (16 percent), and then by other services such as Amazon Prime and Hulu (15 percent and 11 percent, respectively).

Qualtrics notes that two-thirds of respondents said they prefer binge-watching, so it’s surprising that Amazon Prime and Hulu video offerings fell lower on the preference spectrum than did live- and time-shifted television. Qualtrics provided no insight into why Hulu and Amazon Prime placed so low.

As an example of just how far we’ve come in the binge-watching trend, and how live-linear television faces a challenge in attracting large-scale audiences, consider the fact that Qualtrics showed a whopping 75 percent binge-watching rate for those survey respondents who admitted to viewing the entire first season of Stranger Things: Almost half (43 percent) watched the entire season in 1–3 days, with an additional one-third (32 percent) finishing off the season in 4–7 days. In other words, the episodic spaced out over weeks and months is dead.

Rémi Beaudouin, who serves as the vice president of marketing for Ateme, a Paris-based provider of technology to both broadcast operators and OTT providers, put the shift fairly succinctly, in terms of what this article will cover.

“With an increase in these linear and on-demand OTT services from both new and traditional broadcasters, competition is fierce,” Beaudouin writes in an article in The Broadcast Bridge. “The biggest selling point for such operators is primarily the content catalogue they can offer to consumers, but they must also consider quality of service as essential.”

Lest anyone think the content arms race will somehow slow down in the next few years, it’s worth noting that Netflix, at least, doesn’t plan to decelerate its push toward original content. As recently as April 2018, CEO Reed Hastings declared that his announcement in 2017 that Netflix planned to spend $8 billion on original content was not enough.

“[The $8 billion is] spread globally so it’s not as much as it sounds,” Hastings told an audience in Vancouver at a mid-April 2018 TED Talk, noting that, when it comes to choices about where to spend money on original content, Netflix looks both at what other studios are creating (Amazon Prime Video will spend about $4.5 billion in 2018 on original content) as well as its own internal viewership data about what people already watch.

“We’re metacognitive about quality,” said Hastings. “That’s sort of our aspirational self. It works out much better, to please people, to look at the actual choices that they make.”

KEEPING THE SHIFT FROM HITTING THE FAN

With this very real shift underway, what are some key components of media delivery to be aware of over the next 18 months?

There are a number of buzzwords in the media industry today, ranging across interconnected topics—from formats, resolutions, and standards-based names to basic delivery protocols—and we’ve only got a few thousand words in which to tackle the topic.

So let’s spend the rest of this article highlighting important next-generation delivery approaches that we’re going to cover in more detail in future articles.

Encoding to Decode

The current state of codec dominance seems to be a perennial discussion. Almost as sure as there will be snow in Wisconsin each winter, annual advancements in encoding technologies will make for significant uncertainties for content creators and content publishers.

We’ll not dwell on this topic of which codec to choose, since fellow Streaming Mediawriters such as Jan Ozer and Dom Robinson have covered key components (no pun) of the codec debates. Ozer has done several articles (as well as a few interviews at the National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas earlier in 2018) that delve into details around the Alliance for Open Media AV1 codec as well as the newest licensing issues around High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC or H.265).

Robinson and I, on the other hand, have written and spoken around the topic of moving past single-codec dependence. I wrote a guest blog post recently on the Wowza Media Systems blog titled “Do Codecs Really Matter?” (the short answer is no, if you have a robust media server solution), and I remain a firm believer in the power of innovation around perceptual quality optimization, content-aware encoding, and even the more recent context-aware encoding, which centers on dynamically encoding streams for the given device-network combination(s) that a particular on-demand video asset or live video stream will be played back on.

Given the lead time of a typical magazine article, one thing is for certain: Regardless of what we write here, the fluidity of the new codec-of-the-month approach to the market will render our pontifications about codecs at least partially obsolete by the time you read this, so be certain to keep up with StreamingMedia.com for the latest on licensing, codec optimization, and even the ever-present specter of Advanced Video Coding (AVC or H.264) continuing to improve its baseline optimization for high frame rate (HFR) and high dynamic range (HDR) delivery of 1080p60 10-bit streams as a way for AVC to stay relevant in the marketplace.

Where Do I Look?

In the world of immersive video, whether VR or 360° video, there are several next-generation approaches that seem to be gaining traction.

One of these is outlined in a January 2018 article published by the IEEE called “Gaze-Aware Streaming Solutions for the Next Generation of Mobile VR Experiences,” which argues for weighting next-generation stream delivery based on anticipated gaze. If video optimization to date has focused on one to five frames of referential detail to enhance video clarity while keeping latencies low, based around the human visual system, the idea around gaze-aware encoding is to move beyond content- or context-aware encoding and toward anticipatory viewing based on neuroscience. The article’s authors, several of whom work for the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, plus an author who works for Ericsson, premise the new solution as one that “aims to deliver high visual quality, in real time, around the users’ fixations points while lowering the quality everywhere else.”

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