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What Defines OTT? Even the Experts Can't Agree on a Meaning

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When I chaired Streaming Forum in London last week, I was in for two surprises. First, it was almost 70° Fahrenheit, a shocking (and welcome) contrast to the "Beast from the East" that hit during the 2018 event. Second, even though the theme of the event was "OTT: Better Than Broadcast?," I discovered that people still argue over what, exactly, OTT means.

The discussion started over coffee, then continued over beers at the networking reception, which carried over to the pub next to the ExCel. Some attendees were adamant that OTT only applies to online delivery of TV- and movie-like content—YouTube and video on social platforms doesn't count. One attendee argued that it's a business term rather than technical term, and is based on who holds the billing relationship with the customer—if it's direct-to-consumer rather than billed by a telco, ISP, or cable company, it's OTT. But what happens when you pay Comcast or T-Mobile for your Netflix? Does Netflix then cease to be OTT?

I think most of us agree that OTT is any video delivered over the open internet (one thing everyone agreed on is that managed IPTV services don't fit the bill). But just the fact that there was still a debate about it was a reminder of how young our industry is. When we sent out an email announcing the theme, the CEO of a prominent startup responded with "That's a joke, right?" No, it wasn't a joke, but of course we were being provocative and a bit cheeky with our "Better Than Broadcast?" tagline.

Our first keynote speaker, DAZN's Florian Diederichsen, took the bait, declaring, "Of course OTT is better than broadcast!" Throughout the day, and during a panel I moderated at BVE a couple days later, speakers were a bit more cautious, but still bullish on the ways OTT offers (or, for now, promises) improvements on broadcast and pay TV: convenience, choice, personalization in both programming and advertising, interactivity, and our industry's unofficial mantra of content anywhere, anytime, and on any device.

They all agreed that we've got a ways to go before we achieve all those goals—and there are still key ways in which OTT is worse than broadcast—but it's clear that nobody can say those promises are empty ones.

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