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With the Ice Bucket Challenge, User-Generated Video Ruled in 2014

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So what was the biggest streaming video news of 2014? Some would say it was the FIFA World Cup, by all accounts the most-viewed online event in history. Akamai says it delivered a whopping 6.9Tbps (that’s terabits per second) of video during the Netherlands–Argentina semifinal match alone.

Others might point to HBO’s announcement that it will finally make HBO Go available to consumers over the top, without a cable subscription. It’s been a long time coming, but HBO’s move was widely seen as the tipping point for OTT, and 2015 will likely see almost every major network offer some sort of OTT-only subscription.

If schadenfreude is your thing, perhaps the most important news of the last year was Apple’s October embarrassment, when the HLS stream of the new iPad mini launch stopped working for almost every viewer on almost every platform, a reminder that streaming is still a long way from stealing broadcast’s crown.

On the geeky side, the continued forward progress of MPEG-DASH, HEVC, and 4K got most of the ink (or pixels). Netflix and Hulu are both using DASH now, while Netflix and Amazon are both using HEVC for their 4K offerings. And let’s not forget about VP9, for which Jan Ozer makes a compelling argument in this Producer’s View column.

These are all big stories, each of which in its own way points to the pervasiveness of streaming in the larger media and entertainment picture. Broadcast and cable aren’t going anywhere, but they’re becoming more reliant on IP with each passing year. As Imagine Communications CEO Charlie Vogt said at IBC in September, “TV will move to IP sooner than people think.”

Still, for the biggest online video story of 2014—and the one with perhaps the greatest implications for the future—you might want to have a look at the list of most popular search terms on Google for the year. Unsurprisingly, the list was topped by celebrities, sports, and major news stories; the top four terms (both in the U.S. and globally) were Robin Williams, World Cup, Ebola, and Malaysia Airlines.

But not far behind—No. 5 globally and No. 6 in the U.S.—was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Ice Bucket Challenge videos were viewed more than 10 billion times on Facebook, and more than 1 billion times on YouTube, according to those companies. Think about that for a moment. A viral video phenomenon—and a mostly organic one at that—almost surely drew more online views than the World Cup. (Apples-to-apples numbers are impossible to come by, but for comparison, Univision Digital reported 73 million live streams during the World Cup, while ESPN says it streamed 43 million hours over the course of the tournament.)

Why haven’t we heard more about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge as an online video juggernaut? Because it wasn’t a monolithic, single-point-of-origin event that could be monetized by advertisers or media companies. As Tim Siglin writes, “User-generated content has never really fit the encode-once-cache-everywhere model of premium content ... Yet just because it’s a hard technical challenge— and probably will require tweaks to delivery models to handle low-latency content delivery—doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be an attractive proposition for streaming media delivery companies looking to service a growing market.” (Siglin made those comments in an article about a joint Akamai-Streaming Media survey report on The State of CDN Services.)

While most of the attention in the streaming industry is on the big names at the top of the media and entertainment food chain, the biggest online video story of the year didn’t even register as an online video story at all. And while I’m not suggesting that a charitable campaign like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge should be coopted by technology or media companies, surely there are lessons in its success that we’d all do well to heed. Maybe, to paraphrase a quote from my favorite TV show of 2014, True Detective, we need to start asking the right questions.

This article appears in the January/February 2015 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "The Challenge of the Ice Bucket Challenge."

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