What Is Streaming Video 'Delivery?'
If you spend any time in the streaming video industry, you'll soon hear the word "delivery." In fact, it's used quite often to describe the technologies, processes, mechanisms, and vendors that are involved in transmitting bits and bytes of data in response to users' requests for video segments.
But the word "delivery" for video wasn't always so hyperfocused. In the television space, for example, delivery means a host of things: getting the signal from the camera to the editing truck, getting the edited feed to the downlink facility, getting the content from the rightsholder to the production facility (these "digital dailies" used to be delivered by hand as videotapes), etc. Delivery, outside of streaming video, involves the entire system of providing viewers with an experience they can watch.
The streaming video industry, though, has stripped a lot of that away and reduced delivery to just a technology process. When people within the streaming industry talk about delivery, they are really just concerned with protocols and network transit. And although those are important parts of providing a great streaming experience, they are only just one aspect of delivering such a service.
Consider the user experience, for example. In a recent Chicago Tribune article, the writer asked people how they felt about streaming apps. In general, the consensus was, "Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't." They crash. Streams end abruptly. Quality is hit and miss. The gist of the Tribune's story is that there are a lot of devices on which people watch streaming content, and yet, the viewing experience, the experience that is being delivered by the streaming operator, is incredibly inconsistent. And that doesn't happen with broadcast television anymore.
Of course, one could argue that streaming is way more complicated than traditional TV. With broadcast TV, there are only a few components in play to get the content from the broadcaster or multiple systems operator (MSO) to the end user. There aren't miniature set-top boxes that users need for watching content on their phone or tablet. There is just one set-top box, and everything that's needed to decrypt and display content is built in.
Streaming, though, is a federation of technologies: codecs for encoding and decoding, transcoders, watermarking technology, DRM technology, ad-insertion technology, apps for different operating systems and devices, webpages for browser viewing (which must support multiple browsers), etc. Imagine if each room in your house were different and the traditional broadcaster had to tailor the delivery. It would be a nightmare.
But that's precisely why we need to expand the definition of "delivery" in streaming video to accompany everything that's involved in providing users with a viewing experience. It's the webpage or app through which they are streaming. It's the delivery of bits. It's security (if a user has licensed something and he or she can't watch it, that's a bad experience). It's the delivery of advertising. Streaming video delivery isn't just about bits and bytes or protocols or CDNs. It's all-encompassing, which equates to an overall experience with the video that the viewer wants to watch.
This may seem like I'm quibbling, but words matter. The lexicon of an industry helps everyone speak the same language so that when we talk about the issues that need to be addressed, there's no question. But a lexicon can also be inclusionary or exclusionary. Right now, the use of the word "delivery" in the streaming video industry is exclusionary. And if we are going to take the next step toward streaming replacing traditional broadcast, then we need to start including more of the holistic experience in how we talk about delivery. Because if we continue this reductionist approach that "delivery" is just about protocols and bytes, we will forever keep streaming as second fiddle to traditional TV.
The popularity and growth of FAST show us that viewing behavior, despite the rise of streaming, hasn't really changed much at all. People want choice, but they want it in a way that meets their needs. FAST doesn't scrap the broadcast experience with which so many are familiar; it is evolving it in a way that broadcast could never do to improve upon the viewer experience.
You might think it's crazy of me, as the executive director of the world's largest streaming technical association, to ask the question in this column's title. But I think it's actually important that we do a gut check every once in a while.
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