Editor’s Corner—Can streaming video really be as good as broadcast?

Streaming Media East
Opinions vary on how much progress online video has made in matching the benefits of broadcast.
Ben Munson

At Streaming Media East last week in New York, the question of parity between online video and broadcast was tiptoed around.

In a session entitled “Making IP Video Better than Broadcast,” Paul Dashner, technical marketing engineer at Cisco, was quick to clarify that Cisco loves broadcast, that it makes a ton of money off broadcast and that is has lots of broadcast customers.

Dashner went on to explain that Cisco was talking about enabling content to reach as many audiences as possible by using IP, and the usability and flexibility IP-based delivery provides.

At another session entitled “Establishing Parity Between Online Video and Broadcast Television,” speaker opinions varied on how much progress online video has made in matching the benefits of broadcast.

Clark Pierce, senior vice president of TV Everywhere for Fox Sports Go, said latency is still the number one complaint his company receives. But John Bishop, CTO of the media division at Akamai, said his company has actually encountered times where operators have asked his company to slow down media streams because they were outpacing traditional linear feeds. Bishop even proclaimed that online video will be less than cable latency this year.

The speakers more or less agreed that broadcast still had the upper hand in terms of scalability, reliability, fidelity and linear, as well as from an operations standpoint. Perhaps most significantly, the speakers agreed that broadcast beats online video at monetization.

Of course, online video has to compete for bandwidth with all other types of data moving across the internet, while broadcast and pay TV are sent across managed networks that handle only video content delivery.

Really, the only consensus among the panelists on a category where online video has broadcast beat is user experience. That's because the IP-based environments in which online video live are able to morph quickly to address consumer demand while traditional TV UI architectures are brontosaurus-paced when it comes to updates.

It may be harder to gauge how online video and broadcast compare in terms of quality, but some metrics paint a fairly clear picture of viewership moving away from traditional linear platforms toward online. While eMarketer is estimaed a whopping 62% of global internet users will view online video this year, traditional linear ratings are wavering and pay TV operators are losing subscribers at an alarming clip.

“With most of the data now in, early returns suggest a litany of worst-evers. It was the worst ever first quarter sub loss, at an estimated 762K subscribers; over five times (five times!) as many as last year’s loss of 141K,” said analyst Craig Moffett in a research note, detailing pay TV subscriber numbers during the first quarter of 2017.

But viewer behavior shifts don’t necessarily tell the whole story and they certainly don’t indicate the quality gap has been closed between online video and broadcast.

Indeed, broadcasters have been taking steps to meet viewers where they are as more consumers take in their TV across all manner of devices and platforms. The ATSC 3.0 next-generation suite of TV standards moving forward for the broadcast industry will enhance over-the-air transmissions in many ways, not the least of which is enabling mobile devices to receive broadcast content.

And the major networks like ABC, CBS and NBC are setting deals with their affiliates to help ensure local broadcast content will be available across the expanding number of virtual MVPDs like YouTube TV, Hulu, Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, DirecTV Now and FuboTV.

Online video will undoubtedly continue to improve in ways that can help it match what broadcast can offer. Streaming services will get better at scaling and not buckling under big viewership. Meanwhile, broadcast will keep getting better at translating its content to IP environments. It’s a natural shift that both industries will need to embrace if they wish to continue growing.

But, if the general consensus last week in New York is any indication, broadcast doesn’t have to worry about online video surpassing it any time soon in most quantifiable terms. — Ben | @FierceBrdcstng