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What Happens When the Super Bowl Stream Buffers? Buffer Rage!

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As we head into Super Bowl 50 weekend the odds favor the Carolina Panthers over the Denver Broncos. However, it's a sure-fire bet that the live streaming audience will top last year's mark of 1.3 million concurrent viewers.

Streaming is a key offering for sports teams and broadcasters as they try to attract consumers leaving hefty pay TV subscriptions. But there's a cause for concern: What happens to this momentum if the live stream buffers?

That's the question raised by network performance tools vendor IneoQuest which has compiled a timely study, commissioned through third-party research firm Research Now, finding that sports buffering outweighed all other video categories in its ability to inflict rage in viewers. The Buffer Rage survey found that two-thirds of viewers for live streamed sports rated buffering or other quality-of-service issues a 7 out of 10 for frustration. The survey notes that 2 out of 5 viewers will wait 10 seconds or less for buffering video to resume.

Cord-cutting continues to build momentum. OTT video subscriptions are up while pay TV subscriptions are down, according to consumer data released in December by the Pew Research Center. It states that 15 percent of Americans who once had a cable or satellite subscription have cut their service. Also, 39 percent of millennials identify themselves as cord-cutters, according to research published last month by Arkansas-based Field Agent.

Professional sports leagues began to embrace live streaming last year, offering live streams to cord-cutting fans desperate to access their favorite teams’ games.

“These streaming packages, while a step in the right direction, haven’t been introduced without challenges,” says IneoQuest senior director of marketing Kurt Michel. “Blackout rules, device restrictions, and service interruptions, including buffering and poor quality video, have been enraging diehard fans for months.”

Despite these challenges, he suggests fans are willing to try to make it work rather than paying for high-cost cable packages. However, the cord-cutting trend means that it is only a matter of time before scenarios similar to the one below increase in frequency. 

Yahoo’s first-ever live stream of an NFL game earlier this season was referred to as a “disaster” by Business Insider, Michel notes.. Reporter Cork Gaines wrote; “While I didn’t expect perfection in Yahoo’s first attempt at an NFL live stream, there were far too many instances of the screen being pixelated or going blurry.” 

Viewers also saw plenty of video freezing and jumping. These interruptions happened every few plays, Gaines said, even though his internet connection was working perfectly.

Last year, NBC's stream of the Super Bowl was "mostly ok," said CNN, but web streamers complained that commercials were blacked out. This time around, CBS Sports has committed to live streaming every commercial as close to real-time as possible.

It’s interesting to note that CBS reported that the recent live stream of the AFC Championship game between the Broncos and the New England Patriots set records, with triple-digit growth in viewers and minutes streamed compared to last year’s AFC Championship game. More than 1.2 million unique viewers consumed more than 89 million total minutes of coverage across laptops, desktops, connected TV devices, tablets, and mobile phones, with viewers watching for more than 69 minutes on average.

“The looming potential quality issues—freezing, jumping, buffering, blurry and pixelated images—could mean the difference between seeing an important play or getting the mobile alert on your phone before your stream restarts,” Michel says. “And for many, the ads are the main show—unless they play poorly and induce Buffer Rage.” 

Michel's solution to stopping problems before they reach the OTT viewers is through end-to-end performance visibility—monitoring and analyzing critical, well-defined points in the content’s journey to the viewer’s device. “Just like TV broadcasters learned decades ago,” he adds. 

As OTT strives to achieve broadcast (and even 4K/UHD) quality, sports will continue to be a major testing ground for live streaming technology.

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