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Not All Content (or Devices) Are Created Equal

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If broadcast television taught us one thing about video content, it’s this: one size fits all. Whether you are watching from a television set, with a set-top box, or from a mobile phone that has HBBtv or DVB-H (or, now, ATSC 3.0) capabilities, it doesn’t matter. It’s the same signal.

Unfortunately, the one-size-fits-all approach is no good when streaming.

Unlike broadcast, streaming often relies on unmanaged networks like the internet for delivery of content. Broadcast is a closed, managed environment. The internet isn’t owned by any one company in particular. As such, delivery of streaming video can be fraught with difficulties not present in broadcast—like network variability (such as when consumers switch from a mobile to a Wi-Fi network), quality of service (it’s really hard to guarantee delivery when you don’t control the network, hence the term “best effort”), and more. Of course, streaming technologies have been introduced to help address some of that, like adaptive bitrate which provides the appropriate quality stream to the requesting device based on a host of factors like available bandwidth, memory and CPU utilization, etc. But the underlying one-size-fits-all strategy still reigns. Although different quality bitrates may be available, they aren’t necessarily reflective of the device that’s being employed, just its capabilities to accept and render a specific bitrate.

And yet, if there’s one thing streaming has really done to the experience of “watching TV,” it’s exploded the concept of one-size-fits-all. Traditionally, “watching TV,” has been done on a television set. But as streaming has unshackled content from old technologies, like QAM, and enabled it on new technologies, like IP, that’s no longer the case. TV can be consumed from a variety of devices that are all fundamentally different. Watching video on a 70-inch screen is a different experience than watching it on a 6-inch one.

The other aspect of streaming that has really changed the game is the device itself. From television sets to tablets to gaming consoles to mobile phones, each device has the capability of capturing a wealth of data about the viewer. In conjunction with session information (again, thanks IP) that can be tracked through the player on the device to the server itself, a complete picture of individual viewing habits (non-personally identifiable, of course) and aggregate viewing habits (potentially down to a zip code level) can be developed. This is nothing like traditional broadcast television. It affords streaming service providers a host of opportunities to personalize the viewing experience in a variety of ways from addressable advertising to interactivity. And although the technology to do this is still very nascent, it’s available. The data is being collected. The possibilities are at our fingertips.

Only not much, if any, of the industry capitalizes on the opportunity. They continue to ship the same bits to all devices. And, from an operational standpoint, that makes complete sense. If you can package video in one way, using CMAF for example, and deliver to a myriad of devices in a variety of chunked formats, that makes a lot of business sense. But does it make sense for a device-by-device strategy? One startup, Streamroot (recently acquired by CenturyLink), has technology that attempts to address this. Let’s call it “context-aware delivery” (my phrase, not theirs). By using the data about viewers, they can help deliver versions of video bits tailored to a specific device experience. They aren’t the only streaming technology company looking to solve this. And many streamers have instituted logic into a delivery architecture that provides the appropriate bitrate to a specific user agent. That’s a start. It doesn’t use data, but it keeps in mind that one-size-does-not-fit-all. Why deliver a 1080p or 4K stream to a mobile phone when the screen can’t display that pixel depth anyway? It’s a waste of bandwidth.

It’s time for streamers to become more sophisticated, to start leveraging the data available about their users (which is not available for traditional broadcast), and ensure that what gets delivered to each device is not just the right bitrate, but the right bits for the experience.

[This article originally appeared in the November/December issue of Streaming Media magazine.]

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