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20 Years of Streaming Media: Looking Back and Looking Ahead

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As I write this, the top story on the Streaming Media website is about a report from Futuresource Consulting that says that there are now 125 million subscription video­ on ­demand (SVOD) subscriptions in the United States. That only accounts for 10 percent of total consumer spending on pay TV—which means cable and satellite operators are still the dominant forces in the market—but that number should give you pause, especially if you’ve been in the streaming media industry as long as Streaming Media has.

2018 marks the 20th anniversary of the Streaming Media brand, which launched smack in the middle of the dot­com bubble, just a few years after the very first webcast. The early Streaming Media shows reflected that, with high­ profile speakers like Bill Gates and Mark Cuban and massive parties taking over venues like the Queen Mary in Long Beach, Calif., and the Ministry of Sound in London. I wish I could have been there, but my previous life as a music journalist had me writing for another dot­com company, Sonicnet, which put into practice the audio streaming that was being innovated by the attendees and exhibitors at Streaming Media conferences. Tim Siglin, who was there, wrote about the first 10 years in “A Decade of Streaming Media."

We all know what happened to most dot­com companies. Some, like Cuban’s Broadcast.com, managed to sell for ridiculously inflated prices before the bubble burst, but most either blew through their funding and faded away before ever leaving a real mark or were acquired by larger companies, a few of which are still around. Sonicnet is long gone (it was acquired by Viacom and subsumed into MTV.com in 2001), but Streaming Media is still here. When I joined the company in 2004, the Streaming Media East show at the New York Hilton Midtown was a toned­-down affair, but the companies that were on the trade show floor had one thing in common: They were in it for the long haul, not to make a quick buck. (OK, there were still a few of those, as ever there will be in a tech-­focused industry.)

And if you’re reading this, you’ve either stuck it out through thick and thin, or, like me, missed out on the early days of the industry altogether. Either way, you know that this is still an industry where both technology and content companies come and go. Some, we hate to say, turned out to be smoke and mirrors from the beginning (anybody remember Vectormax?). Some are ahead of their time. I think back to our June/July 2008 cover story on Lexicon Digital. The company that boasted a streaming industry pioneer—Nils Lahr, who co­founded iBEAM and VXtreme and was on the original Windows Media team—and a Hollywood celebrity—David Caruso, then star of CSI: Miami—and was pushing transmedia and second-­screen interactivity before those terms were even part of the (insert Horatio Caine­putting-on­sunglasses shot here) lexicon. That company vanished along with Caruso’s acting career, but its ideas are being implemented today.

Some of the companies that made a big splash at Streaming Media events are still going strong. Companies like Brightcove, Limelight Networks, and AWS Elemental (then, just called Elemental Technologies) were fixtures at our East and West shows almost as soon as they launched, and they still speak at the events today, in part because they’ve shown a commitment not just to pushing their own products and services, but to educating others and moving the industry as a whole forward.

It’ll be companies like that that survive the tumultuous year ahead, one in which we predict we’ll see tremendous change and, sorry to say, more than a few companies exiting the market. The rest of the year will certainly see an expansion of the streaming media market—expect that 125 million number to be more like 150 million at year’s end—but a contraction in the number of vendors who are providing the products, services, and technologies that make all those SVOD and over­the­top services possible. And after 20 years, our mission remains the same: to help you keep this industry growing.

[This article appears in the 2018 Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook as "20 Years of Streaming Media."]

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