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Online Video Must Improve Streaming Quality to Compete With TV

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We’ve all heard Peter Parker’s uncle’s advice, “With great power comes great responsibility,” but there might be a corollary in the streaming media and online video industries: With TV-quality scale comes a demand for TV-quality quality.

At the outset, viewers forgave poor quality in online video, as it was never intended to compete with or even be shown on a television set -- or even full-screen on a computer in the early days. Yet today viewers are just as prone to see a YouTube or Vimeo video show up on the nightly news, given how major broadcasters continue to morph their show-closing human-interest segments into something more akin to a segment on what video is popular on Facebook today.

Beyond the tendency for old media to display trending -- and trendy -- new media, though, there’s a bigger game afoot. From the FIFA World Cup to the latest live breaking news, television sports and news are expanding their alternate programming to include live streams of alternative camera angles (World Cup) or secondary-language coverage (such as press conferences covered by Univision or other major broadcasters).

So now that we’ve got the fair trade winds of popularity behind over-the-top (OTT) and TV Everywhere delivery, what are the key quality issues the industry needs to address?

I see seven key quality inflection points at the end of 2014 and beginning of 2015. I’ll present the first three challenges here, and the remaining four will be revealed my November column.

Artifacting. One of the easiest ways to snap a viewer out of “the moment” in a show, the one where they’re so engrossed that reality fades away, is to have the key scene so poorly encoded that all sorts of blocks and rectangles of various sizes and colors begin appearing on the screen. You know the type of artifacting I’m referring to, and it continues to plague online and OTT video playback, from Hulu to Netflix to YouTube.

The average viewer might not understand the why of what’s happened, but it breaks the story line paradigm in a way that runs counter to the director’s or storyteller’s vision. The above-average techie might chalk it up to network congestion, in which a lower bitrate version is substituted for a higher bitrate version on the fly -- in other words, the essence of adaptive bitrate delivery working well -- but digging under the hood of artifacting tells a different story.

It turns out the majority of high-resolution content is just poorly encoded, with limited quality control to check those high-action or complexly composited scenes. True, HEVC will add a level of inherent quality control for lower-bitrate 720p or 1080p content encoded at the equivalent bitrate to AVC versions, but the status quo just means that we’re all going to be subjected to lousy 4K and UHD encodes. Make it stop!

AV synchronization. We shouldn’t even have to discuss this issue at the beginning of 2015, but one of the differentiating criteria in a recent Transitions desktop and mobile player research report found that almost a third of the popular online media players still have audio and video synchronization issues. If artifacting takes the viewer out of the moment, AV synchronization issues keep the viewer frustrated for minutes on end.

Buffering. The final quality issue we will discuss here is buffering, also known as latency and start-up time. Without getting too geeky, another set of measurements in our recent Transitions online media player testing was the load time for the Flash Player-based SWF player -- the type of player the majority of desktop players, and some mobile players, rely on -- from a user’s URL link click to the first frame of video.

In that time, three things happen: The SWF player loads, pre-roll advertisements are authenticated and sorted, and either DRM or encryption -- or both -- are confirmed and decrypted, allowing the first frame of video to play. What happens next is one of the most frustrating experiences in online video viewing. And we will cover that next month.

This article appears in the October 2014 issue of Streaming Media magazine as " The Spiderman Rule for Online Video." Click here to read part two.

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