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How Do You Spell Over-the-Top Streaming Success?

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Despite the hype, online video is not poised to take over the television experience anytime soon. Yes, lots of people around the world are watching video-on-demand (VOD). In fact, according to a 2015 Nielsen study of 30,000 people worldwide, approximately 65 percent of respondents admitted to watching VOD content. That’s a pretty big percentage. But does this mean that people are “cutting the cord” or that consumers are trading in their linear broadcast signal for online video? Of course, some are making these choices, but a 2014 Nielsen study indicates that the average American watches 5 hours of broadcast television daily. And according to a 2015 study by Thinkbox Software, broadcast television accounted for 76 percent of all video consumed in the U.K.

So why aren’t consumers fleeing pay TV subscriptions in droves? It’s not because the value proposition for online video isn’t alluring— watch what you want, when you want, where you want. One could argue that consumers are canceling their pay TV subscriptions because of the price. OTT services offer significantly cheaper annual rates than traditional pay TV subscriptions. And even though consumers may need to purchase multiple OTT services to access everything they want to view (e.g., Sony PlayStation Vue, Hulu, and Netflix), they still aren’t paying for hundreds of channels they’ll never watch.

The reason can’t be broadband penetration either, as we’ve seen a significant increase in high-speed internet over the past year (14.1 percent globally in 3Q 2015, according to Akamai). Sure, pay TV does have one clear advantage over online video—the user experience. There’s only one remote and no need to switch between multiple HDMI inputs just to watch a program. And there are live sports and other events that are almost impossible to get outside of a pay TV subscription if they don’t belong to one of the four major sports categories. (The MLB, the NBA, and the NHL all have their own OTT services, and the NFL is considering one.)

This leaves the elephant in the room—a critical difference between linear broadcast and online video that is probably most responsible for the lack of widespread cord cutting. We can’t ignore this elephant any longer if we expect video consumption behavior to transition from linear to online. That elephant is quality.

How TV Has Spoiled Us

A few decades ago, watching television was as unpredictable as watching online video can be today. Consumers struggled with rabbit ears, delivered an occasional smack to the side of the TV, and sat through lots of static. Then came coaxial cable, and we entered a golden age of broadcast quality. But it wasn’t just because the delivery mechanism was better. It was also because the cable operators gained immeasurable insight into the delivery experience through the cable set-top box. They were able to troubleshoot, down to the individual television, when problems arose.

Today, when a viewer sits down to watch his TV, he grabs the remote with a set of expectations: It’s going to turn on (possibly along with other electronics), the channel is going to appear almost instantaneously, there won’t be any interruptions (no jittering, stuttering, or artifacting), and the picture is going to be perfect. These expectations have become known in the online video industry as “broadcast quality,” and achieving them has been somewhat like trying to bag a unicorn.

The Impact of Quality on OTT Adoption

The lack of guaranteed quality for online video has definitely posed some problems for widespread adoption. According to Limelight Networks’ consumer research report, “The State of Online Video,” consumers’ biggest frustration with online video is buffering. (On a scale of 1–4, with 4 being most frustrating, video buffering received a score of 3.13. “Quality of the video” was a close second.) Yes, there are people watching YouTube and Netflix regularly, but they are in the minority. For most people, online video isn’t the norm; it just augments their television consumption. Until OTT providers can guarantee “broadcast quality,” consumers will continue to fall back on the video source that meets their expectations—their pay TV subscriptions.

The Road to Broadcast Quality

So what is the quality of online video today? Thankfully, there is a heightened sensitivity within the industry around improving online video. Unfortunately, vendors are trying to solve the problem individually. From technology provider to content owner, there is little standardization regarding improving and guaranteeing the quality of online video. And that leaves viewers holding the bag.

The Player Is the New Set-Top Box

At the heart of monitoring and ensuring online video quality is a beacon—a bit of code embedded within the player that sends back valuable information to the content owner or network operator, data about those key metrics that Edwards and the SVA quality of experience working group are trying hard to define (see the sidebar at right). With this data, content owners gain insight into what’s happening with their video experience at an individual player and stream level. But implementing a beacon isn’t easy. “These scripts can be built yourself,” says Diane Strutner, vice president of business development U.S. and APAC at Nice People at Work, an online video quality of experience (QoE) vendor, “but the time and resources it takes to not only build them for your ecosystem of platforms, but develop dashboards, create metrics, and analyze the data is highly resource intensive and time consuming.” There are alternatives, however. The market has begun to fill with a host of technology providers offering both managed service OTT solutions (with integrated QoE features) and off-the-shelf beacons for integration into any player. Note that this article focuses on QoE, which addresses quality at the user level, rather than quality of service (QoS), which focuses on ensuring the optimal performance of a network that’s delivering content.

Managed Service: NeuLion

NeuLion offers an end-to-end digital platform for OTT delivery. From asset management to monetization to the player to quality-of-service beaconing, organizations such as the NFL, the NBA, and the PGA have utilized NeuLion’s system to deliver a TV-like experience with online video. Unlike other solutions in the market, however, NeuLion does a lot of hand-holding. Part of its QoE value proposition suggests handling much of the analysis for the customer by providing a monitoring service that works in conjunction with other features within the platform. And that is all made possible through a beaconing system that enables NeuLion to see the user experience at the individual stream level. Think of the player beacon as a digital “heartbeat”— NeuLion is able to listen in to what’s happening with a stream in near real time.

“It is essential to analyze every single detail of every single viewer through multiple viewing metrics including bitrate of video, buffering counts, startup times, and more with the ability to break each of those metrics down by the viewer’s location and device,” says NeuLion executive vice president Chris Wagner. “This allows providers to continually monitor the quality and performance of their broadcasts, specifically by location and device, to quickly react to changing variables to ensure it is being delivered at the highest possible quality for every viewer.”

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