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A Look Back at Streaming Video's 2020

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In many ways, 2020 feels more like a decade than a year. From global warming to global warnings, from political instability to pandemic uncertainty, from Wall Street cratering to Wall Street pretending nothing happened, 2020 has played out like a Saturday night doubleheader of B-grade horror movies that our parents attended back in the dark ages. Except this decade-long year of 2020 is the real thing. This is reality. 

Looking back over the year, though, it certainly wasn’t all bad, at least not from a streaming perspective. After all, almost every schoolchild and working adult in these United States now knows not only what Zoom is but also about 50 different uses for it, including lectures, class gatherings, weddings, and funerals (and, sadly, Zoombombing). Zoom, like Google, has almost become so ubiquitous that it’s at risk of being turned into a verb. At the very least, I suspect it’ll be one of the words of the year when the Oxford Dictionary folks release their newest list.

This was also the year that several major premium content companies went direct to consumer with their own streaming platforms. Just in time, too, as traditional broadcast, event venues, and amusement parks all came under significant financial strain. In just a year, Disney has gone from using Disney+ as a loss-leader funnel into its theme parks to seeing streaming as the primary focus of the company—enough so that it launched Hamilton online to drive subscribers, then sold those subscribers the upcharge of watching the Mulan remake, minus the theater experience, since both stage and screen remain closed in much of the country.

It is true that the streaming industry had some low points, including the "disbanding" of the Motion Picture Experts Group (MPEG), technical glitches at some major now-online-only events, and the release of so many new codecs that we’re back to asking if our former selves learned nothing in the halcyon days of the late 1990s and early aughts, before the Pax Romana of H.264 came into effect and helped the industry grow through a common video compression scheme. 

Be that as it may, H.264 is still with us, as witnessed by a number of surveys, reports, and conference speakers in late 2020 who continue to remind us that H.264 still has legs. We’ve been saying that now for almost 3 decades, starting in the ’90s videoconferencing days. It’s almost like H.264 is a zombie that won't die.

On a personal note, I’m thankful for stream­ing in a way I didn’t expect I'd experience in 2020: I got married the weekend before the lockdowns in mid-March, and the only way people from across the globe—who had planned to attend, before flights were canceled and borders closed—could celebrate with us in real time was to watch the live stream that a fellow streaming exec offered up and emceed.

As the streaming industry continues to set record after record for streaming delivery, with on-demand content consumption surging above pre-pandemic levels—and holding steady, even after lockdowns eased—and live user-generated content (UGC) stepping up in such quantities that it seems like UGC is re-applying for the title of King of Content, it feels almost like deja vu from the big streaming party that was 1998 or 1999. 

But, as Prince warned us, "Forgive me if it goes astray / But when I woke up this mornin’ / Could have sworn it was Judgment Day." So let’s hope that we’re not going to be waxing nostalgic for 2020 anytime soon and that the future includes more streaming records but fewer coronas (viruses not cervezas).

With all that’s gone down in 2020, I’m hesitant to even approach my normal look forward into next year. In fact, I'll save that for the first column of 2021 and conclude here with one more thought about the year that we’ve just been through: "You know what they say about hindsight …"

Let’s just hope that saying ends with 2020 and doesn’t follow us into 2021.

[This article appears in the November/December issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Streams of Thought: Hindsight."

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