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A New Year Brings Familiar Trials to the Streaming Video World

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As befits the first issue of a new year, this edition of Streaming Media magazine is a forward-looking one, with features on how live sports are on the cutting edge of streaming technology, how multicast might ease network loads to make true broadcast-scale streaming possible, and how the latest technology allows video publishers to thwart ad blockers.

But if you dig beneath the headlines, you’ll see that our industry is still wrestling with problems it has faced since the very beginning: How do we compete with broadcast, cable, and satellite? How do we get broadcast-quality content to broadcast-scale audiences? How do we monetize that content? These are some of the very same questions we’ve been asking on the pages of this magazine for 10 years (12 if you count the first 2 years we published only the annual Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook), and on the StreamingMedia.com website since 1998.

Indeed, in this month’s “Streams of Thought” column, Tim Siglin refers to a list he wrote that same year of issues the streaming industry faced. In the column, he focuses on one—improving encoding algorithms to drastically reduce bitrates—but touches on others, including the ever-elusive goal of scaling up to, and beyond, broadcast- and cable-sized audiences.

That challenge is going to become even harder to meet as OTT providers increase the amount of content they’re delivering in 4K. At the vanguard of the move to 4K are Netflix and Amazon Video on one hand, and live sports on the other. When Netflix streams House of Cards in 4K, though, it doesn’t face the same problem that BT Sport Ultra HD faces when it streams a Premier League match—namely, a mass of viewers swarming to watch the same content at the same time. In “For the Win! Live Sports Are Driving Streaming Innovation,” author Adrian Pennington quotes Akamai’s Bill Wheaton as saying, “we’re going to have to change the fundamental technologies of the internet,” in order to deliver 4K live events in a consistently reliable fashion.

One of the other feature stories in this issue, Dom Robinson’s “The Return of Multicast,” involves part of that change. Multicast has been around since the dawn of streaming video, Robinson writes, but has never found widespread adoption. Technical hurdles were to partly to blame, but the bigger issue was a business problem: Since multicast reduced the amount of traffic on the network, and since CDNs and other network services make more money when there’s more traffic, there was little incentive for them to embrace the new approach. As Robinson writes, “sometimes inefficiency can be valuable.”

That’s all changing as network architectures are changing, and CDNs see the business sense in moving towards multicast. As Streaming Media’s Dan Rayburn was fond of saying a decade ago, without a working business model, technology advances are meaningless. But when technology advances start eating into the streaming industry’s still-nascent business models, sometimes they only way to combat them is with other technology advances. That’s where stream stitching and server-side ad insertion (SSAI) come in, as Siglin outlines in “A Stitch in Time,” though he points out that even that technology is something of a return to the early days of streaming, when ads were “baked in” to the content stream. For the last few years, most ad insertion has occurred on the client side, which allowed for ad targeting but also opened the door to ad blocking. Just like it says on the tin, SSAI still allows for targeting but brings the ad insertion back to the server, where ad blockers can’t interfere.

This month’s other feature article highlights another way in which things haven’t changed much since 1998. If you’ve attended any online video conferences, including our own, you’ve likely noticed that the men in the audience far outnumber the women. That’s changing some, but not fast enough, and in “Women at the Top,” Troy Dreier speaks to three high-profile female CEOs for their take on why our industry still skews so heavily male, and what we can do to change that.

This article appears in the January/February 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “The More Things Change...”

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