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The State of Live Video 2018

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The conversation around live-streaming video still begins with sports, as it has for the last few years. Skinny bundles, niche over-the-top (OTT) plays, and social networks are all rushing to satisfy a demand for live sports video that’s available from any device at any time.

As it builds up its video offerings, Facebook has bought into sports, striking deals with Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, the Union of European Football Associations, and the World Surf League. At the end of 2017, word came that the social network was planning on spending billions more on sports. Amazon Prime served up NFL Thursday Night Football games in 2017, and Twitter focused on college sports and pregame shows.

While social channels grabbed headlines with high-profile buys, skinny bundles also saw the importance of sports: Hulu’s Live TV, Sling TV, and DirecTV Now all feature live sports, often subject to blackouts. FuboTV grew from a sports streaming service to become a more fully rounded skinny bundle offering. Fans are also subscribing to MLB.com, CBS All Access, and a variety of other niche services to get their games. How niche are these offerings? Casino lovers saw the arrival of subscription service PokerGo in 2017, and tennis fans saw the birth of WTATV.com from the Women’s Tennis Association. The National Lacrosse League livestreamed games on Twitter. Plenty of events, such as the Spartan Race World Championship and Showtime Sports’ Fight Night Live series, took advantage of the Facebook Live platform. Even high school teams began experimenting with live streaming in 2017.

Latency Still Vexes

While social networks and publishers are rushing to offer live sports, developers are rushing to solve the problems live video presents. In 2017 there were many discussions about latency, and that’s sure to continue through 2018. While there are any number of startups that promise to have latency licked, saying they can deliver live streams at scale anywhere around the world in microseconds, sports fans know reality is far different. In November 2017, peer-to-peer company Phenix put out a survey showing that 72 percent of sports streamers expect some type of poor service, including buffering, delays, poor image quality, and a total loss of service. The company’s CMO, Jed Corenth, said, “The live streaming experience is broken.” Looking ahead, 63 percent of fans says they’re reluctant to sign up or re-subscribe in 2018.

“Of course, there’s no silver bullet to solve the latency issue,” wrote Streaming Media columnist Jason Thibeault in July/August 2017. “Delivery is critical, but even incremental changes to workflow can add latency to the delivery, which makes solving the problem not just a technology issue. It’s about business processes. It’s about network relationships and peering. It’s about optimizations. There are so many variables that can impact latency, it’s difficult to chase them all down.”

Facebook Live Leads the Way

While sports was the big topic in live video in 2017, Facebook Live was the big platform. With its unparalleled reach, the platform proved irresistible to any company or group looking to stream to a mass audience without the burden of launching its own solution. Facebook’s video expansion rolls on fast and furious, and this year it gained the ability to stream 360° videos. Facebook also released a feature called Live With, where the person holding a live video chat can pull another live video feed into their stream for a conversation, creating a joint video feed that is then streamed live to all viewers. During the Streaming Media West conference in November, Facebook software engineer Nick Ruff delivered a keynote address about the complicated backend technology that makes Facebook Live With possible.

“It’s a really authentic, kind of raw way to connect with your fan base,” Ruff said. By moving fast on video and experimenting with different offerings, Facebook is showing how a major enterprise can think like a startup.

This move to live isn’t happening without a few growing pains. For one thing, live linear streamed services aren’t providing the same level of quality as the broadcast, cable, and satellite services they’re trying to supplant. Before the industry can move forward, viewers need to get the same kind of reliability from streamers, especially if they’re streaming a major event like the Super Bowl. No one wants a buffering delay when they have a living room full of friends to entertain. In October 2017, Ring Digital released survey results showing that online viewers were more likely to experience problems with live video than pay TV customers: 10 percent of pay TV viewers had had three or more delivery issues in the past month, while 16 percent of streamers said the same. When they encounter a buffer delay, 51 percent of streamers stop watching after two or three attempts, while 28 percent stop after just one problem. Maybe that’s one reason why young adults are more likely to watch time-shifted than live online video. A September 2017 report from the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) found that millennials spend 55 percent of their viewing time on time-shifted programs and 45 percent on live, while those over 35 years old spend 66 percent of their time with live TV and 34 percent with time-shifted content.

It’s easy to tell when a format is ready for primetime, because all the vendors rush to support it. In 2017, hardly a month went by without a major announcement about live video support. In June, JW Player expanded its live-streaming service to all enterprise platform customers with no additional fees. First announced at the end of 2016, it streams video to Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, Periscope, and YouTube. In September, Wowza announced the rack-mountable ClearCaster, which is able to stream 1080p video to Facebook Live. In September, Vimeo announced it was acquiring Livestream and launching its own long-awaited live video product, Vimeo Live. It followed that up the next month with an updated Mevo camera, the Mevo Plus, which offers better wireless streaming. In October, Ooyala attempted to bring broadcast quality to streaming with a 99.95 percent uptime guarantee for publishers. Not all live services took off in 2017: BitTorrent announced the demise of BitTorrent Live in April. That seems to have had more to do with instability in the company than problems with the technology or demand.

With the stage set, live video is sure to be a constant topic in 2018. There are obstacles to overcome, but plenty of incentive to tackle them.

Looking Ahead

Again, we’ll start with sports, as that’s the dominant topic in live-streaming entertainment and the one most in flux. Subscription service providers and sports leagues have explored every possible avenue to attract fans. In 2018, look for some of that experimentation to subside and for dominant distribution methods to take hold.

While there are fans who are interested in only one league or one sport, there are more fans who follow a variety of sports. For that reason, aggregated efforts will begin to take hold. That’s the belief of Brett Sappington, senior director of research for Parks Associates, who sees big years coming for sports aggregation. It’s something Fubo is already doing, he notes. Fans want services that offer local pro teams, college, and other sports all in one place. While the online future was supposed to be all about targeted niche offerings, consumers are finding they don’t want to manage more than a handful of subscriptions, and providers see the benefits of offering more comprehensive packages.

The big unknown for 2018 is what Disney’s ESPN streaming service will look like, and how much it will disrupt the arena. ESPN owns rights to a variety of professional and college leagues, and isn’t about to stream content it’s already successfully monetizing on cable. But it has rights to so much content that it can create a streaming play with unused assets. Doing so lets it not only gain revenues from subscriptions, Sappington notes, but also sell geo-targeted advertising for different regions.

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